Sunday, September 28, 2014

Born or Made

A couple of months ago, J decided to try and learn to ride. She made this decision, in part because she knew how much fun I have riding with someone on another horse, in part because some of the trails I like/want to ride are pretty difficult on a bike. The other motivating factor was that J wanted to stop being so afraid of horses in general, to learn how to move around them and what to expect in terms of behavior. I think she also wanted to be able to converse on a "horse behavior" level that I currently talk with Saiph, Liz and N, and to understand all the various parts and pieces of those conversations. She did this, not out of a passion about horses or the deep-seated and unvoiced desire to become one with the horse (centaur-like/co-being), but because she wanted to answer a need in me.

I have to admit I was pretty excited to have her take lessons and the little puff cloud over my head created a daydream of two horses, a couple of mules and a summer riding the Colorado Trail after T goes to college. I think she was sharing the same dream, of combining my love of riding and our combined love of camping. She said she wanted to help me fulfill all of my bucket list items, where horses were concerned.

Michelle, the hunter/jumper trainer, did a great job of getting J comfortable with grooming, picking feet, saddling. J knows a lot more about how to handle a horse now, how to move around them, how to circle or correct their behavior from the ground and how to read their attitude and react to it correctly. From that point, J got what she really wanted from the lessons she took.

I watched J ride, knowing she was doing this for me, even if I hadn't asked or expected her to. This woman, who I have watched for eighteen years, who has never come off a bike or fallen on her roller blades (I can fall just standing still), who could tandem with me on blades down some pretty steep hills at mach speed, who can stand on one foot while putting a sock, a shoe and a gaiter on the other without losing her balance, did not look balanced on the back of a horse. I thought (hoped) in my heart that it was fear that was making her anxious, and that she would relax as she learned. As time went on though, it became obvious to me that she was stiff and uncomfortable, never really finding that rhythm that comes when riding a horse. Her seat, while decent, did not develop over the course of the seven lessons (yes, I know if she had taken more lessons or if she had been able to practice on a horse in between, it would have made a difference, but I honestly think in the end the result would have been the same.) That innate instinct in how to move with, move apart from, to stay on when all hell breaks loose, was missing. When something went wrong on a horse, on an instinctive level, J had no idea of what to do.

The first time J came off, she had been posting and struggling to keep her hands in the correct position. She became unbalanced and slid slowly off of Voodoo's right side. Voodoo, great horse that he is, stopped immediately and got worried about what had happened. It was completely J's fault. She lost her balance and came off. What worried me the most about watching that happen, was that she had no instinctive drive to try to stay on. You know what I mean. You've seen the videos of kids and adults hanging off the side of the saddle, or off the horses neck, trying with all their might to keep from hitting the ground. J's response was to go tharn and topple sideways. She said later that she didn't know she could grab at the reins or the mane to keep herself on. The instinct to do so was missing. She was hurt pretty bad in the first fall, with bruising across her pelvic girdle and a bit of whiplash, but she hung tough and got back on. It took a couple of weeks for the pain and bruising to go away. (We certainly do not heal as quickly as we did when we were young.)

The second time J came off, the horse she was riding misbehaved. He scooted forward in a spook, J grabbed for his mane and the reins, and the horse ducked his head, heaved a shoulder and dumped her into the sand. She came off him much better this time, only bruising the lower half of her right leg. The horse took off running and bucking his way around the arena. After he was caught, Michelle got on him to make sure he was better and then J got back on. Again, the instinct was missing and J could only react with what she had been taught.

 J's leg four days after

Unfortunately, after her second fall from a school horse, J has decided to stop taking lessons. She learned part of what she wanted to learn, but isn't interested in pursuing learning to ride any longer. At 42, the body doesn't heal as quickly, hurts easier and the hurt lasts longer. She asked me one night why I rode if you were constantly in pain and I just shrugged. For me, To ride is to live. The pain doesn't really matter. You get it if you get it, otherwise I think the whole world thinks we are crazy. For J, the pain and anxiety is too much and the passion is non-existent. I'm completely okay with it, because watching her try for the past seven lessons has left me feeling scared that she was going to be seriously injured. I think Michelle did a fantastic job with what she had and J's decision to stop taking lessons has nothing to do with the teaching. It's just not J's thing.

J told me one day that she was never that little girl who daydreamed about horses. She coveted a BMX bike from her earliest years, something her parents wouldn't let her have. She grew up riding and wanting bikes, which explains why she is so balanced and comfortable on them. I told her that I love riding with her on her bike and I have no issues with going on the trails that she can manage on the bike.

This situation has made me consider the following question:

Are Equestrians born or made?

My belief is they are born. 

In my opinion, it means that a true equestrian is born with the innate ability to sit a horse, to know on an unconscious level how to react to behavior and movement. And probably most important, the passion to ride even after being bit, kicked, stomped, dragged, thrown, fallen with, and terrified. That innate ability to ride has nothing to do with lessons, or showing or competing or ribbons. It is the ability to ride as if the horse is an extension of the riders body. It exists in the DNA of the rider. It manifests as early as two and is as significant to the rider as air. To ride is to live.

This is based on my personal experiences. I feel like I was born to ride. It was coded into my DNA from the moment I was born. My first experience by myself on a horse resulted in a run-away, Russian Olive trees and bleeding scratches over my entire body, with fists of hair torn from my head. I was six. My first ride on a pony of my own resulted in a run-away, amongst the apple trees on a saddle that slipped sideways on the pony's barrel due to not tightening the cinch enough, careening around the 1/4 acre pasture until I finally let go. None of that was a deterrent. I learned all on my own at eight years old how to stick that pony, how to make him go where I wanted him to go, how to stop him when I needed to and how to bail off when I couldn't. I was given my first horse at 12, a three year old green broke mare, and trained her myself, without any outside help (no lessons or trainers on a farm in Southeast Idaho). At 13, I started training horses for our neighbors for money to buy hay. By the time I was 16, I helped break and train four BLM Mustangs just off the range. I didn't take a lesson until I was 51.

Does that mean that I don't believe you can learn to ride? Yes. I do believe riding can be taught. However, I believe that those riders, while able to show, jump and hunt, will struggle to find the same comfort and understanding on a horse that a born horseperson will have innately.

I want to say that there is no judgment here. Just like some people are born with blue eyes and some are born with green, some people are born with the innate ability to ride. In so many ways, the people who choose to learn should be given more credit than those of us born with the ability. It takes a lot of time and energy to learn to ride properly. And dedication, despite the pain and agony associated with riding horses.

What do you all think?


  1. I totally think they're born too. Also, my husband has a similar experience with trying to learn to ride. He had a pretty nice natural seat, but just didn't take to it or enjoy it all that much.

  2. you write a lot of posts that touch my heart - this one, i think, touched the hardest.

  3. Actually your "first" ride was before you were born. I finally found the picture of me and K on a horse back ride when I was 6-7 months Pregnant with you. This was actually the first time I had been on a real horse ride prior to this I had ridden horses at the know ponies tied together going in a circle LOL :)

  4. Oh, I'm so sorry that J got hurt. That stinks. It was very game of her to give riding a try. It sure isn't for everyone.
    For myself, I can't remember a time when I wasn't horse crazy. An old friend said to me a couple of years ago (I was 60), "I guess you're not going to grow out of it".

  5. I'm on the fence about it: only because Ive loved horses since my earliest memories, but didn't ride until I was out of college (my parents were clueless about the horse thing and kept me busy with other activities). However I didn't have much problem learning, and always knew I could do it (though dealing with adult fear issues totally sucked). So maybe I've just learned to ride? Or was I born with it? I don't care much, as long as I'm on the back of my horse I'm happy.

    But I'm sorry that J got hurt. She's awesome as an athlete, it's so cool that she goes with you on the bike. Something for everyone, but not every sport for everyone.

  6. I'm totally with you. And I have loads more respect for those people who learn it and struggle through vs. being born with it. I'm really thankful for my natural ability, but man, learning and pursuing despite the hurdles is so admirable!

    I really like the first half about J and the synopsis on how she pursued horses for you to be able to understand better. Partners who can share even a piece of your passion are gifts and are the reason for healthy, lasting relationships in my experience. You two are such an amazing team! I love that despite things not quite working out with J and riding that you still have a way to get out on the trails together!

  7. Yikes, I feel for J and all her accidents. It takes a lot of passion for the sport to keep trying again and again. I am probably a prime example of someone to whom riding does not come naturally. I wouldn't say I have any natural / innate ability to do it and my seat was certainly still crap after 7 lessons. I have had a bunch of bad falls and there was one recently that really shook my confidence and made me question whether I wanted to keep doing this (I decided that I do). Natural ability is great but you have got to have that passion to keep coming back lesson after lesson, fall after fall and that is impossible if you don't love it. Personally I wish I has more well-rounded and liked some other sports, but for some reason riding is the only one that does it for me! Good for J for trying!

  8. I think the passion is born in us for sure! I have no idea about ability and instinct. I've never really thought about it before. Whatever it is I am so grateful that I have it and that I had the opportunity to grow up with horses and that I have the horse I have now. I can't imagine my life any other way. I'm sorry J got hurt but I commend her for trying. Also I've been meaning to tell you that you and J are what inspired my husband and I to try out the horse/bike combo. I thank you for that. He grew up riding horses but can't anymore due to a back injury so this allows us to share riding together again. Thanks! :-D