When my 26-year-old gelding, Zeke, died 15 years ago, I believed my on-again, off-again equestrian life was over. But as it turned out, I just couldn’t stay away from horses. And so I bought Ria, a young Thoroughbred-Percheron cross.
It wasn’t a decision I made lightly. At 66, I was way past the expiry date for serious riding. My finances were limited. My barn and fence needed repairs. And all my former horsey buddies had either stopped riding or disappeared from my life. It was neither logical nor practical for me to get involved with horses again, let alone own one.
I bought Ria anyway, well aware of the physical risks, financial drain and the emotional roller coaster that riding has always meant for me. She was sound, with good feet, a shiny black coat and a quiet eye. I boarded her at a nearby stable that offered me the security of an indoor arena.
Everything scared me in those first months. For starters, catching and bringing Ria in from the paddock was an ordeal. She didn’t like to leave the herd. Once in her stall, she would not stand still for grooming. I fumbled with cold, arthritic fingers trying to tack her up. I rode with a death grip and Ria spooked at every excuse, stiff with anxiety. I simply did not have the confidence I once had or skills to show up every day as her leader, her “safe place.”
The severe winter weather didn’t help, nor did the canvas covering the arena, which snapped and groaned in the wind. In snow or rain, frozen bits slid off its sides, and even the most seasoned horses spooked. Ria was distressed every time we entered, and her fear transferred to me, which I, in turn, fed back to her.
So why, I asked myself, was I doing this? But then I’d think, this is my last chance. I can do this.
I had always loved horses, but somehow, my equestrian aspirations had never quite gelled. Like many girls, I wanted more than anything to ride, but buying a horse was out of the question for my parents. When I was 14, I managed to pay for lessons with money saved from babysitting. Much to my chagrin, I was allowed off the longe line only a few times in my three months of weekly half-hour sessions. However, the experience imprinted me for life. The feeling of riding a Lipizzaner schoolmaster with his springy, uphill trot is forever stamped in my equestrian memory.
I didn’t begin riding regularly until I was in my mid-20s and earning enough money to pay for lessons plus a car to get to the stable. At the time, I was working as a journalist in Mexico City, and I found a stable where I could ride almost daily.
Within a year, I purchased Galan, a promising gelding. Over the months we learned how to jump a modest course of obstacles. We even competed in a few shows and were in the ribbons. Still, despite all I was learning in the saddle, I knew nothing about the horse or his care. The grooms did all the work.
My life changed again when I married a Canadian and left Mexico with only my saddle, my dog and a VW Beetle full of memories. The horses had to be left behind, but my experiences were indelibly engraved on my heart. I had a hard time adjusting to my new life in rural Nova Scotia---a move that gave me a bigger cultural shock than my previous one from New York to Mexico City.
Eventually Zeke came into my life, but my passion for riding caused problems in my marriage, interfered with my job and gave me anxiety. It seemed I was always torn between my wife/mother/teacher responsibilities and wanting to ride. There weren’t enough hours in the week.
My chances to ride were sporadic and often unsatisfying. Zeke was a chameleon; difficult to trust. One day he’d be calm; the next, a firecracker. Yet even now I still grieve for him---our trail rides, his comical antics, his friendly nickers. I tend to forget the times he bucked me off.
So why am I starting all over again at this stage in life? The list of good reasons not to is long, but balanced by two counterpoints: Now that I’m retired, I have the time. Also, I really just want the chance to finally “get it right”---to develop a genuine working relationship with a horse.
But, I have to admit, at first I had a hard time with Ria. Then one cold after-noon, while I was longeing her at the boarding barn, I had a breakthrough. Remembering something I had read about the relationship between deep, even breathing and training fearful horses, I slowed my breathing and relaxed my shoulders.
Ria responded almost immediately. She settled into a steady, rhythmic trot in a circle around me. She lowered her head and began chewing. Her ears indicated that she was following my lead. Maybe I really could do this.
A few weeks later, I brought Ria home. We started schooling with the help of an experienced coach. I read a lot about horsemanship and riding. We did groundwork and started hacking in the woods and fields. Bit by bit, trust developed between us. I’ve worked hard to get rid of the bad riding habits I had accumulated. And mostly, I tried to overcome my fear.
We are making progress. Ria has taught me a lot: the need for consistency, patience and perseverance. She taught me that to gain her trust, I must show her respect and be honest---not ask one thing and expect another. Through these learning experiences, I believe Ria has helped me become a less fearful, more empathetic person.
So why do I ride? Despite the cost and the drudgery of chores, I ride because my horse gives me joy. I am grateful for the strong body that carries me and warms my old bones, that takes me to Nature. Riding makes me glad to be alive. The beauty and nobility of horses feed my creative soul and open my heart.
Someone once said that horses are projections of our dreams, helping us escape from our mundane existences. I couldn’t agree more.
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #465, June 2016.