Better Living Through Horsemanship
Updated: Jun 5
Good for the soul
The outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man, said Winston Churchill. He said it almost a century ago, which might explain why he excludes women, who make up the majority of today’s horse-crazy population. Other than that, he was right. Horses can transform all of us, male or female, into better versions of ourselves. How do they do it?
They listen without judgment.
Horses were my therapy as a teenager. The barn became my refuge from adults who did not understand me. I was a loner at school, a social misfit with anxiety issues and a mouth full of braces. I felt awkward and uncomfortable until I rode my bicycle to the local stable every day after school. There, I exchanged barn chores for riding lessons. What I got in return for shoveling manure was much more than a decent seat. The horses never criticized, never disapproved. The horses never laughed about me. They did not care about my looks or my clothes or my grades. Their eyes were always soft, their gaze benign. Their sleek necks mopped up tears. They kept me and my friends out of all sorts of trouble.
Still today, horses are therapeutic. The sound of a horse munching hay, the softness of a horse’s muzzle in my hand diffuses everyday worries and reminds me of what really matters
They make us more assertive.
Tentative first steps under saddle . . .
My after-school time at the barn also helped me become more self-assured. Horses teach us to be consistent and firm. They don’t respond well to tentative or mixed messages. Many of the horses I rode had insecurity issues, just like me. I learned to project a confidence I didn’t feel at first, because I intuitively knew the horses needed me to. Over time, the confidence took root and became a part of me. I still struggle with insecurities, but I’m learning to apply the skills I have learned from my equine friends to real-life situations. It works, at least sometimes.
A month later, Cami trots forward, with much more confidence.
They keep us moving.
Sitting a big working trot is not the same as sitting on a sofa.
We’ve all heard that sitting is the new smoking. Horses keep us from becoming couch potatoes. Any time we spend feeding, mucking, grooming, and riding means we spend less time planted on our rear ends. My husband likes to say that both of us sit all day - he in his office chair, and I in the saddle. I love him dearly, but he is not a horseman. Otherwise, he would understand that riding a horse engages the core muscles like few other activities. Becoming a true athlete takes some cardio and some targeted strength training in addition, but riding and barn chores alone are so much better than a sedentary lifestyle. They help us develop a sensible work ethic.
Relaxation phases balance out intense effort
Horses thrive on consistency. Because they don’t have an “Off” button, they need feed and water seven days a week. They require care in every kind of weather, and exercise too. Training horses involves physical and mental conditioning, which means a regular schedule. Not working a horse during the week and then all day on a Sunday probably won’t make him a better athlete. Horses won’t let us get lazy, but they also keep us from becoming total workaholics. They teach us that more is not always better. Working a horse for hours and hours without stopping creates resistance, not results. From being around horses, I have learned that breaks are necessary, that a little bit of progress deserves praise, and that quitting early on a good note beats grinding out a another twenty repetitions of the same exercise - all valuable lessons for finding work-life balance. They keep us humble.
Horses weigh ten times more than we do, which becomes obvious every time they step on a human foot. They are powerful creatures. Most horses tolerate most riders most of the time. Because of this, it’s easy to forget they don’t have to. Sometimes, horses, even well-trained ones, do unexpected things at unexpected times: they can buck, kick, spook, run off, or otherwise remind their humans to not take riding privileges for granted.
They calm us down
Mindfulness lessons from a great master (in the middle)
Horses have mastered the art of mindfulness without even trying. They live moment to moment, because that’s how their brains function. They don’t have a frontal cortex, which means they can’t analyze or ruminate. They never stress about things that haven’t happened yet, or regret what they’ve done in the past. They exist here and now. Because of this, being with a horse brings me into the here and now. Time with a horse is time to single-task. I don’t look at my phone when I’m riding. Constant two-way communication between the horse and me takes up all my head space, crowding out the negative thoughts and pointless mental chatter that reside there otherwise. There’s no room for nagging worries or destructive self-doubt. Riding makes me appreciate the present moment more than any guided meditation ever could.
A moment of gratitude
Horses are my zen masters, my life coaches, my therapists. Horses help me find serenity in a frazzled world. They diffuse more tension than a spa session.* They build more confidence than a dozen self-help books. They keep me sane. They keep things in perspective. Thank you, every horse I’ve ever met, for all you’ve done for me - it's more than I can ever pay back.
A good perspective on life
*Disclaimer: I don’t know this from personal experience, since I’ve never been to a spa.