True Equestrian: Why do I ride?

Photo contributed by Lauren Mueller
Photo contributed by Lauren Mueller

Horseback riding is an expensive sport – perhaps among the most expensive in the world. It’s a sport that requires commitment to an animal that relies on its rider for its physical and emotional well-being for the duration of its life.

It is not a gentle sport, either. Statistically speaking, more head injuries occur in horseback riding than in football each year. Horseback riding is ranked as the fourth-highest recreational activity that requires hospital admission. Eighty percent of injuries in Horseback riding are caused by falls, and with your head anywhere from eight to 10 feet off the ground, trauma isn’t unlikely. A concussion from a fall makes up four to eight percent of injuries in the equestrian world, and head injuries cause two-thirds of deaths.

There are ways to prevent serious injury while riding. Just like other sports, safety gear is readily available for equestrians. From helmets to safety vests to proper footwear, the ways to prevent injury are numerous.

With all the injuries that still happen, however, it gives some people pause when deciding whether or not to take up horseback riding. And it gives more parents a reason to balk when their child asks for riding lessons.

But do the risks outweigh the benefits? I would like to make the argument that they don’t.

I have personally been riding horses for 16 years. If you read my page at the beginning, you know my parents bought me my first pony when I was five, and I have been hooked on the sport ever since. For me, and many of the equestrians I have met over the years, the dangers of this sport are forgotten in the things it has to teach us.

Physically, horseback riding is a demanding sport. It requires core strength to keep yourself upright, leg strength to hold on when your horse tries to get away from you and arm strength to lift water buckets, hay bales and saddles. The average calories burned doing day-to-day barn chores ranges from 45-250, and the average weight lifted is between next-to-nothing (for something like a comb) to can-I-put-this-down-yet 100-pound hay bales.

Mentally, this sport requires immense concentration and dedication. A football catching you off guard may hit you in the head, but a horse catching you off guard can break your head wide open. Horseback riding teaches those who participate how to stay in tune with their surroundings, anticipating every motion of the 1,200-pound animal they are controlling while also listening to the noise around them to keep their horse calm in the event of a spook.

Those two aspects are not the only reasons to ride, though. In fact, the reasons I give as to why I continue riding after seeing all the injuries that can happen (and the spills I have taken myself), have more to do with what the horse has to teach me than with what the sport itself requires.

Over the years, I have worked with many different horses. Some were so safe a toddler could ride them, others so challenging I wouldn’t trust anyone short of a professional trainer to handle them. Through working with these different horses, I have learned that every single one of them had something to teach me. The lessons they had to teach were more valuable to me than any lesson I learned in school, and they’re the reason I am still riding today.

The first lesson I have learned from my horses is how to listen.

In horseback riding, the communication between you and your mount is based almost entirely in silence. Except for the occasional cluck or spoken “whoa,” horseback riding depends on an intimate understanding of a horse’s body language and the building of a language between horse and human based off that body language.

The average horse competing in the United States weighs between 1,000 and 1,500 pounds. Even the most docile horse with the soundest mind is not free of the fight-or-flight instinct that is crucial to their survival in the wild. When taking that into consideration, it’s important for a rider to understand what their horse is communicating to them both under saddle and on the ground. A miscommunication between horse and rider can result in an accident that leaves both parties injured.

Over 16 years, I have learned that horses have a lot to teach humans about how to listen. They read our body language better than we read theirs, following the slightest shift of our weight on their back as a direction. This teaches a rider to be aware of their body on the horse’s back, understanding that, if I lean back, my horse will stop (and if I don’t want that to happen, I better not lean back).

This also teaches the rider how to listen to their horse’s body language. The horse is already listening to the rider, reading subtle cues in weight shift and body position. Next it’s the rider’s turn to listen to the horse. Horses’ brains are divided down the middle, so they can focus on two things at once. The point of their focus is indicated by the position of their ears.

If a horse is distressed or upset, the typical position of their ears is pinned, or flat back against their skull. A relaxed horse’s ears will flop forward or to the sides, and an alert horse will have ears pricked forward. All of this information is important for a rider to know so that they can listen to what their horse is telling them throughout their ride.

A rider who isn’t listening to their horse will have a horse that resists their every request. Or they will find themselves on the ground after their horse spooked at the rustling bush that the rider did not notice the horse was paying attention to.

Another lesson I have learned from my horses is to show respect. Horses are easily 10 times the weight and strength of their riders. A horse that does not respect a human is liable to strike and kick, causing damage to both the human and themselves. A human that does not respect a horse is liable to turn even the most docile and sweet-tempered horse into a frightened wreck that lashes out with feet and teeth in fear, causing more harm than is necessary to protect itself.

But the most important lesson my horses have taught me is trust.

Trust is a fundamental element of human nature. We need to feel like we can trust others, and we need to trust ourselves. If we feel we cannot do so, we can suffer from depression, anxiety and a myriad of other problems that go with those two things.

We find it hard enough to trust other humans sometimes. It is that much harder to trust an animal that cannot speak your language and can kill you with a single strike out of fear.

But horses are incredibly trusting creatures. They trust each other inherently, forging strong bonds with the other members of their herd. They rely on each other for protection from predators, other herds and even humans. In fact, horses rely so much on their herd – and the trust built in that herd – that they only lay down to sleep if they are with other horses, or in an environment where they feel completely safe.

What does this mean for us? It means that horses are models for trust. Riders who take a lesson from their horse understand how trust can alter someone’s perspective.

Now, keep in mind that this is my opinion on what I have learned from my horses over the years. But I believe these are universal lessons that most equestrians would agree with.

These are the things I tell people when they ask why I ride. All the time and money spent and injuries sustained are enough to make many people turn the other way. And when a child asks for riding lessons? It’s not often the response is yes.

So if you were to ask me why I ride, or why you should consider riding, here’s what I would tell you.

I would tell you that riding is a confidence booster, strength trainer, communication improver, respect builder, and trust maker. I would tell you that I would not be who I am today if I had not had the privilege of growing up with horses as a part of my life. I would tell you that I have built an image of myself based on my horse’s image of me, and have found that person more capable and dependable than she would appear in a mirror.

I would tell you that I believe horses are the best teachers when it comes to responsibility and relationships than any dog I have ever met, and I have had as many dogs enter my life as I have horses. I would tell you that my horses are constantly surprising and challenging me, where my dogs tend to stay in their ways once they’re a few years old. And I would also tell you that I have seen more children mature in horses over the span of a few days than I have seen children mature in school in a year.

So why do I say you should ride horses? Because until your teammate is a 1,200-pound free spirit who chooses to cooperate with you when they could kill you, it’s difficult to understand the depth of trust and respect and communication that goes into this crazy thing we call life.