I began taking hunter/jumper lessons twice a week at a nearby barn, Huntington Ridge Farm in Holly, Michigan, about a year ago after an 18-month break from riding. One of the reasons I chose this barn—outside of its beautiful facilities and high-quality lesson horses—was the number of adults who rode there. Over the months, I’ve gotten to know many of these adult riders and have noticed a recurring theme. In between comments on the weather, the quirky habits of the lesson horses and preferred brands of saddles and half-chaps, we ask ourselves the same question during every grooming session—“Why are we still doing this?” The question is usually asked in a joking manner after one of us has trudged through a distant muddy pasture to retrieve a horse from the rain or while another of us shovels manure out of the grooming stall. Yet, I often sense a more serious undertone behind our jovial inquiry. Why?
Many of us do not have the time or money to be riding horses, yet we sacrifice to make it work. I’ve given up vacations, new clothes, time with my kids and dinners out with my husband. Another woman has taken a part-time job cleaning houses to pay for her riding lessons. Others don’t suffer the financial strain, but sacrifice in other ways. Often grooming horses and improving their riding takes precedence over extra time spent with their families. We know we will never be Olympic riders or, in some cases, will never even travel to a rated show. Many of us will never own our own horse. Still, we return to improve our riding and connect with horses. The lessons—which range from once a week to three or four days a week—take priority on our schedules. The time spent with horses equates to therapy. The desire to find that ideal distance to the next jump and perfect our leg position pulls us back week after week.
Are horses an addiction? I’ve joked with friends about selling my own blood to be able to afford a horse, which sounds eerily like something a drug or gambling addict might do. Although I’m not a psychologist, I suspect there’s more to our unquenchable draw to horses than pure addiction. In almost every adult rider I’ve met, there is a bigger, often secret, motivation: unfinished business.
The women and men at my barn who rode as children or teens had their dreams cut short at some point either by circumstance or choice. This holds true for me as well. I was lucky enough to own my horse for a couple of years as a teenager, but sold him while in high school. I went along with the plan at the time, but the experience of losing my horse left a scar on me that I’m probably still trying to heal. Another woman at the barn described the longing she felt to take riding lessons as a child. Her parents couldn’t afford to pay for them so she grew up jealous of her friends who rode. She now owns and shows her own beautiful horses, but not without sacrificing time with her family. As a teenager, another adult rider saved her babysitting money for years to finally be able to take riding lessons, but there wasn’t enough for her own horse. Today, she arrives at the barn religiously twice a week for lessons.
These might not seem like dramatic examples, but they all carry the common thread of unfinished business. As children and teens, most of us weren’t able to take our horseback-riding dreams as far as we believed we could. Luckily, in the words of novelist George Eliot, “It’s never too late to be what you might have been.” Now we find ourselves back at the barn, many years later, doing everything possible to nurture our dreams. Why? Because we love the horses. Because we know we can. Because our souls require it. Because it’s great exercise. Because we enjoy the company of other horsepeople. Because no matter how accomplished a rider was in his or her younger years, maybe this unfinished horse business is never really finished—and that’s fine with me.
Laura Wolfe is an award-winning author of several equestrian-themed books. Learn more at www.AuthorLauraWolfe.com.
This article originally appeared in the July 2016 issue of Practical Horseman.