Are You a Horseman—or Just a Rider?

Jim Wofford’s quiz may help you answer the question.

Although the coronavirus is still lurking in the background, many of us are getting ready for competitions. But we should still take a moment and think about what we want out of the next few months with our horses. Do we want a blue ribbon or do we want our horses—and our riding—to improve? Are we just riders or are we horsemen? For sure, all of us are drawn together by our love of horses. It amazes me how my life is guided by my consuming love for horses. If you are like me, it is a rare day that goes by that you don’t pause for a moment and lovingly stroke a horse standing next to you or touch that warm velvet just above his muzzle.

My first thought when I saw this picture was, “Don’t give cross-country course designers any more fancy ideas.” But you have to admit jumping through a flaming hoop of fire would make you aware of jumping on a straight line. The truth is that once your horse has practiced this a couple of times following an older horse, it is a simple trick. While at Culver Military Academy, I used to jump through a flaming hoop of fire every Sunday all winter long, carrying a steel-tipped lance pointed forward. Try explaining that to your insurance agent these days!
Pete Maclaine/Alamy

When you spend your life with horses, you go to places you have never been and get a perspective from the saddle that is denied to those unfortunate people who do not ride. I have ridden past the U.S. Capitol Building in a presidential inaugural parade and past a mud hut in Zimbabwe, done a dressage test in front of a castle in Scotland and tied my horse to a tree in a rain storm in the Rockies. Horses give us an enormous range of activities and a worldwide location to enjoy them.

But these days, people are specializing more and more in their horse activities, thus depriving themselves of wonderful experiences on horseback, experiences that make us more complete horsemen, not just riders.

You can go to a competitions of various disciplines to watch people who jump their horses, or people who never jump their horses, or people who jump off their horses—on purpose.

No matter what kind of competition I watch, I am invariably asked, “Do you think we have more riders but fewer horsemen these days?” My answer is always, “Yes.” Webster’s Dictionary defines a horseman as someone mounted on a horse. My personal definition is much more extensive than that.

So what is the difference between a horseman and a rider? In my view, a horseman knows more about horses than how to get them ready for their next competition or how to ride them in the ring. Ernest Hemingway said that you aren’t an adult until you have had three careers. In the same way, I think you can’t claim to be a horseman until you have done more than one thing with a horse.

Surfing with your horse is tough on your tack but is worth it for the experience. You would be amazed at how relaxed and forward your horse is the day after you spend some time with him just “goofing off.” Dressage horses need to get outside and canter up some hills; race horses need to trot figure eights and serpentines and practice their lead departures. Once your horse is calm and relaxed, it will be easier to train him to be forward and straight.
Frank Sorge/

I started making a list of the things that a horseman should have done, but my editor told me it was too long, so I made out a checklist of a few of the incredible number of things you can do with horses. I put most of them on the list based on personal experience, but a few of them are still out there in my future. I made a list like this a long time ago; I hope since then some of my repeat readers have checked a few more of them off their own personal list. I have checked a few more off my own list—guess which ones I have done and which I have yet to do.

Have You Ever … ?

• Led your horse down to the paddock at daybreak, stopped to watch the sunrise and said a prayer of thanks?

• Ridden your horse bareback with a halter?

• Gone swimming with your horse?

• Gotten back on a horse who has just bucked you off, even though you were scared?

• Jumped through a flaming hoop of fire?

• Slept with your horse in his stall … sober?

• Been run away with, put your hands down on his neck and felt him slow down?

• Escaped a forest fire by riding down out of the Rockies in a world lit only by starlight?

• Been the first person to ride a young horse?

• Held the pommel while your horse cut a cow out of the herd?

• Thrown a diamond hitch on a pack horse?

• Held the reins of a four-in-hand?

• Been hurt by a horse who meant to hurt you?

• Sat against a tree and read a paperback book while your horse grazed next to you?

• Taught a horse to jump?

• Delivered a foal?

• Sat up all night with a colic case?

• Picked out a stall in muck boots while wearing a formal or tuxedo?

• Galloped a race horse?

• Thought to yourself, This is really going to hurt, on your way down?

• Made a nervous horse calm?

• Jumped your own height on horseback?

• Ridden in a steeplechase race?

• Had a bad day at the office, said “the heck with it,” and gone for a hack instead of training your horse?

• Been the only human there when the foxhounds caught up with their fox?

• Ridden a horse above the timberline?

• Held the lead shank while the vet put your horse to sleep?

• Stopped for a moment to think about how lucky you are to be in a world that has horses in it?

Of these 28 experiences, a few are still in my future—at least, I hope so. Can you guess which they are?

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2020 issue.

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