"Sit tall in the saddle, Hold your head up high Keep your eyes fixed where the trail meets the sky And live like you ain't afraid to die And don't be scared, just enjoy your ride"
When new clients come to my barn, I always ask them what their most important goal is. My favorite answer: “ I want to enjoy riding my horse.”
To some, this may sound like these students are setting the bar low, or like they don’t have much ambition to learn how to ride well. We often use the term “recreational rider” in a dismissive tone, to describe to lesser humans than competitive riders, aka “nose to the grindstone riders.” I’ve heard the argument that, if you have no desire to compete, your pursuit of horsemanship can’t possibly be serious. But if we really think about it, finding joy in being with our horses is a worthy goal. More than worthy - it’s the best goal any of us can have. Without it, all other goals become meaningless.
For most of us, horses are an expensive hobby. We spend a lot of money on feed, tack, lessons, vet bills, hoof care, etc. For some of us, like me, horses are also a way to make a living. There are parts of my job that I enjoy a lot less than others, but on balance, the parts I truly enjoy weigh a lot more than the parts I don’t. If they didn’t, I would quit. I choose to do what I do, just like a recreational rider. All of us ride because we want to. No one forces us to do it.
So, if we don’t enjoy riding our horses, why do we ride them? We could pick a less demanding pastime, like knitting. Unless the price of gas rises a lot more than it has, horses won’t be necessary for transportation anytime soon. In spite of that, many of us think we have more important stuff to worry about than enjoying ourselves. I see riders grinding out a gazillion repetitions of the same excercise in the hope that the next one will be perfect. I see riders hanging on to the saddle horn for dear life, terrified of the next spook or bolt. I see riders consumed with envy at the competitor who just beat them on a fancier, flashier horse. I see riders in lessons and clinics, feeling discouraged because they feel they will never measure up to their trainer’s expectations. I see riders feeling frustrated because their horse either overreacts or tunes them out. I see myself feeling disappointed and depressed when I pick up my score sheet for a dressage test. Where does joy go in those moments? How can we get it back?
Riding with joy does not mean riding in blissful ignorance. Joy goes deeper than the fleeting pleasure of a dude-type trail ride, where horses follow the horse in front of them and riders are passengers. We find joy when we feel truly connected to our horses. It means riding well enough to communicate with our horses, in a dialogue that involves both participants, not just a series of commands from the rider. It means understanding the language of our aids, as well as the language of the horse’s back. It means developing a seat that’s balanced and independent enough to do that.
But riding with joy also means preserving what most of us experienced when we first climbed on a horse’s back. It means reconnecting to what we felt when we first realized that a 1000-pound animal graciously allows us to not only hang on, but to engage with his body and mind. Often, this sense of awe and wonder ends up buried underneath a layer of ambition, fear, anxiety, or other emotional road to oblivion.
When I was a kid, I rode every horse I could, for as long as I could. I did not own a horse. Instead, I rode horses and ponies whose owners thought they had better things to do than ride. This was beyond my comprehension. For me, nothing was better than riding - anytime, on any horse, in any weather. I did barn chores in exchange for getting to ride. Cleaning stalls was not something I really considered a chore, since I at Ieast got to be near the horses while I shoveled manure, but I would have been happy to scrub toilets in exchange for riding.
Most of the horses I was so excited to climb on were just trail horses, without long pedigrees. They had little, if any, idea what balance or bend was, or what the rider’s leg should mean. None of this mattered, as long as I got to ride. As a teenager, I could not afford private lessons from good instructors, or expensive riding clothes. Shows happened in a different universe from mine. Compared to the joy I found in riding horses, these were trivial issues.
What has changed since then? I grew up, which means: I have accepted the belief that hard work and competitive ambition is more important than having a good time. But now that I’m recovering from growing up - i.e. growing old - I am finding that there is nothing wrong with looking for joy, or with finding it.