The High Wire Act of a Horseless Rider

The High Wire Act of a Horseless Rider

I long for my own horse in the unconscious, instinctive way I imagine many people long for children. And while I consider myself a serious, lifelong rider, I’ve never owned a horse, and I won’t be purchasing anytime soon: like many juniors and amateurs in this sport, neither my bank account nor my schedule is ready for the demands of an equine partner. My horselessness doesn’t lessen my desire to ride and learn, a difficult needle to thread in a sport so structured around ownership, but I’ve found a system that works for me, and surprising rewards from years of riding without a horse to call my own. 

After I started riding at age of seven, I progressed through the local riding academies of suburban Boston, diligently taking my weekly lessons, attending horsey summer camps, and occasionally leasing a horse in the barn. I had a soul-deep envy of the riders my age with their own horses, which wasn’t in the cards for my family, but the continual draw of horses, any horses at all, kept me going back to the barn week after week. After a long break for college in the city, I returned to riding in my twenties and was surprised to discover my childhood on schoolies and green horses had given me a superpower: I could ride anything, because that’s what I’d always done.

My first show at age 8.

I got along with hot horses, dull ones, naughty ponies and babies, and once I had knocked off the rust and gotten riding fit, I could often get decent work out of them. While many of my new barnmates were beautiful riders with junior careers that I could only dream of, I realized I had learned an adaptability in the saddle that was relatively unique. I felt a pang of jealousy at their throwback photos of Devon or Young Riders, but I also saw for the first time that my years of riding horses that weren’t mine and often weren’t “made” had given me a gift that I benefit from every time I sit on a new horse.

As my riding evolves, I strive to be realistic about my short-term and long-term goals, and creative and dedicated about achieving them. For many years in my twenties, a weekly lesson was all I could swing, and my only goal was to get the most out of each lesson, so I found a trainer I clicked with who had wonderful school horses and decided top-tier instruction was worth driving farther and paying more. I worked hard in my lessons, asked questions, and spent the long drive home thinking about my rides. I joked that I was trying to be the Kent Farrington of the 2’6”, well aware that the strongest possible foundation would benefit me when it came time to move up. 

Living the dream at summer camp, age 10

After my rides, I cleaned my tack, put my horse away spotless, watched extra lessons, and lent a hand whenever possible. If you have the extra minutes to tidy up the aisle, give your schoolie a great bath, or set jumps for your trainer, that commitment will be noticed. Showing that I was a reliable client, a trustworthy horsewoman and an empathic rider who wanted to be involved unlocked riding opportunities that I might not have thought to ask about: often there was a lesson horse to hack, a friend who asked me to ride their horse while they were away, or a lease offered to me that I wouldn’t have been privy to if I hadn’t made the effort to integrate myself into the ecosystem of the barn. 

I’m a huge proponent of leasing, which is often presented as a stepping stone to ownership but has incredible value on its own. When I’m looking for a lease, I keep my long-term goals in the back of my mind, but focus on a baby step toward that goal that I can use the lease to tackle. Maybe I need to add some finesse in the show ring, and I should spend the summer focusing on that. Or maybe it’s time to put the jumps up, and I need a partner to teach me the ropes of a new level. 

I’ve often gotten creative with budgeting or timeframes to make these leases happen. I don’t love cold weather riding, so for a few years I took winters off, freeing up my budget to lease a horse for the warmer months. Being open to short-term leases and ready to jump on those opportunities when they arise can have amazing results: if there’s a sale horse in the barn that needs ammy rides, or a boarder taking time off due to injury or a pregnancy, you could turn that into a great opportunity to get saddle time without the commitment of a full lease or a purchase. 

No matter what kind of lease situation I find, I always set an achievable goal: if the horse is out of work, the goal might simply be getting it fit and tuned up again. If the horse is a schoolmaster, maybe I can set a big horse show goal for the end of the season. Either way, enjoying the journey and the partnership is the most important thing. It’s easy to get deflated when you see your barn friends (or randoms on Instagram) crushing the division you dream about while you’re trying to convince a green horse that he is capable of a leg yield, but your homework will pay off when your time to buy a horse or move up comes. 

Education on the ground has also been instrumental to making myself a well-rounded rider and horsewoman. As a kid I read my monthly Practical Horseman until it was dog-eared, then advanced to books on classical riding technique and theory. Today we have resources I could only have dreamed of in the ‘90s: I live-stream big classes and clinics, continue to read widely, and work my way through Equestrian Masterclasses. When I wanted to address my horse show nerves, I didn’t horse show at all: I read sports psychology books and went to shows with my barn to help out, take videos, and re-acclimate to the rhythms of show day without the pressures and cost of entering. Attending horse shows is educational even if you aren’t working through a case of nerves: any time I make it to WEF or the Hampton Classic, I spend most of my time at the warm-up rings, watching how top riders school their horses. 

Cultivating a determination to stay in the moment and be grateful for the time I have with horses is the single most valuable skill I’ve developed as a horseless equestrian. I recently had an uninspiring lesson at a new barn, but after I dismounted the baby Thoroughbred I was riding sweetly reached out, leaned his forehead against my torso, and stood quietly with his head in my arms as I chatted with the trainer. I could have gone home dejected, thinking I’d wasted a lesson because there was no tricky jump course or challenging flatwork, but I chose to focus on that tiny, beautiful moment with the horse instead. As rewarding as nailing a bending line or executing a flawless shoulder-in is, that’s not what I fell in love with during my first lesson: it was just the presence of horses, their inexplicable magic. 

"It’s easy to get deflated when you see your barn friends (or randoms on Instagram) crushing the division you dream about while you’re trying to convince a green horse that he is capable of a leg yield, but your homework will pay off when your time to buy a horse or move up comes."

That magic can easily be lost as we rush between work, the barn, and our families, leaving us unsure of why we pour money, time and effort into this sport. I’ll always want a horse of my own, and I have the earmarked savings account to prove it. But when I look back, I find those lovely, small memories are the scaffolding of my life with horses. I’ve spent the last twenty-five years demonstrating that I don’t need my name engraved on a stall plate to experience what I truly love about horses: liniment baths on a hot day, realizing we just jumped the oxer I was scared of six months ago, wandering down a trail with no destination in mind. 

I often think of myself at age ten, falling off scruffy ponies into the snow at a barn with no heat, bathroom or indoor, and how amazed she’d be at the horses I ride, the knowledge I’ve accumulated, the friends I’ve made, and the fact that my barn has not only a bathroom but a shower. She’d be thrilled just to cool out a horse, any horse, as the sun sets over the back field. And all these years later, so am I. 

Read this next: Not 'That' Kind of Amateur