My beautiful office. Thank goodness I can still go to work.
Like most of the world in this surreal spring of 2020, New Mexico is under COVID-19 lockdown. Only essential businesses are still open. Only essential workers still have jobs. I’m a horse trainer, so I feel grateful that people who are responsible for a horse’s’ basic needs are considered essential. Exercise is just as basic a need as feed and water. Horses are made to move, whether there’s a virus wreaking havoc with their humans’ lives or not. If they don’t, their minds and bodies suffer. Horses can’t just spend time on the sofa, like most of us do in times of social distancing, but the nature of “exercise” remains open to interpretation. I choose to interpret “exercise” as “riding” more often than not.
How I spend most of my work day.
I ask myself often why I still ride while in quarantine. There are no shows on the horizon, no clinics to get ready for. The New Mexico Livestock board sent out a letter urging horse owners to cut their activities down to a minimum. By most standards, climbing on a horse’s back is not essential for the horse’s welfare. Riding is my job in normal times, but these are not normal times. The owners of the horses in my care would understand if I followed the rules literally. They would not mind if their horses got a break from riding. I could just turn them out, or lunge them. The horses would be ok. I know that. And yet, I still find myself on a horse all day, most days. When I don’t ride for a day or two, I miss it. I crave it. Even if I didn’t get paid to do it, I’d still do it - because I want to, because I need to.
Time in any saddle is time well spent.
It’s true that I ride a little less than I used to. In my twenties, I rode ten or more horses a day. I climbed on any horse - bucking, bolting, rearing, you name it. Now that I’m 50, eight horses a day seems a better number. I also prefer horses that don’t buck or bolt, which means teaching them, from the ground, that they don’t need to. I take more time teaching horses to lunge. I’ve even learned how to use a double lunge without getting tangled up in it, at least most of the time. But when I have a choice, I still would rather ride a horse than not ride a horse.
For me, riding a horse means connecting to that horse in a physical sense that makes our partnership more solid. When things are going well (which they don’t always), my back feels what the horse is about to do. I communicate with the horse’s body directly, taking feedback and responding immediately with my seat, legs, and fingers. I don’t have to think about what I’m doing. My frontal cortex is taking a back seat in this ongoing conversation.
We enjoy ground work, too.
We can’t have this kind of intense, nuanced dialogue with other species. We can, of course, communicate with dogs and cats, even with dolphins. They learn follow our voice commands. They also learn to understand our body language, and we theirs. But our bodies are not connected in this unique way. We don’t move our spines in rhythm with theirs.
I sometimes wonder how many species early humans tried to ride before they figured out horses were the best choice. I also wonder how the early horseback riders figured out how to influence their horses’ speed and direction by using their bodies to talk to their horses. I know my relationship with horses changed from a little girl’s wide-eyed worship to a deep and lifelong passion once I felt the horse’s back talk to my back for the first time. Ever since, I’ve been trying to learn that language, to understand it better, to speak it better.
In the 21st century, horses no longer serve a clear purpose. Keeping them in our lives makes no sense from a practical point of view. They’re too large to make good pets. They need lots of space. They cost lots of money. They take up lots of time most of us don’t have.
I disagree with PETA - horses can enjoy being ridden. It gives them confidence, balance, and focus if we do it right.
Riding horses makes even less sense. It’s an expensive, labor-intensive, and often dangerous thing to do. Horses can live happily without carrying us around. Animal rights groups argue that riding horses is inherently cruel. According to PETA, “the decision to take part in horseback riding is made solely by one individual with little benefit to and no input from the other.”
So, why do so many of us still make that decision? Yes, I know: to some, horseback riding is still a status symbol, a membership in an exclusive club that, because of the exorbitant price tag, keeps out the hoi-polloi. But for most of us, horseback riding is a way to connect with another living creature that’s unique in this world. In these unsettled times, we need horses more than we ever have. As social distancing becomes the new normal, being on a horse feels like hugging someone. As social media replaces real-life relationships, being on a horse reminds us that honest, yet polite conversation works better than pretense or anger. As anxiety encroaches on every aspect of our lives, riding a horse forces us to be present in the here and now.
The time is now. The place is right here.
While I ride, my fears and worries fade into the background. All that matters is the rhythm of the horse’s gaits. All that matters is the gently rocking motion of the horse’s back. There is nothing more calming for the human spirit than riding a horse at a walk, feeling his legs go one-two-three-four, There’s nothing more energizing than riding a brisk, bouncy trot. There’s nothing more joyful than riding a big, rolling canter.
It costs time, effort, and money. On the plus side, this anti-depressant works every time, without side effects.
We need horses much more than they need us, especially now.