Editor’s Note: Best Horse Practices Summit presenter Katrin Silva grew up riding dressage in Germany before moving to the United States at age 19 to learn to ride Western. She’s been riding both disciplines for the last 20 years and is a regular guest columnist for Cayuse Communications. The author of Dressage for All of Us: How to Help Any Horse Become a Happier, More Responsive Riding Partner and the forthcoming Ride with Feel: A Guide for the Rest of Us lives in New Mexico where she works with dressage and Western clients.
Sit tall in the saddle, Hold your head up high
Keep your eyes fixed where the trail meets the sky
And live like you ain’t afraid to die
And don’t be scared, just enjoy your ride
When new clients come to my barn, I ask them about their most important goal. My favorite answer: “I want to enjoy riding my horse.”
To some, this sounds like a low bar, that these riders don’t have much ambition to learn how to ride well.
We often use the term “recreational rider” in a dismissive tone, to describe lesser humans than competitive riders, also known as “nose to the grindstone riders.” I’ve heard the argument that, if you have no desire to compete, your pursuit of horsemanship can’t be serious. But finding joy in being with our horses is a worthy goal. More than worthy – it’s the best goal any of us can have. Without it, other goals become meaningless.
Horses are an expensive hobby. We spend money on feed, tack, lessons, vet bills, and hoof care. For some of us, horses are also a way to make a living. There are parts of my job that I enjoy less than others, but on balance, the parts I enjoy vastly outweigh the parts I don’t. I choose to do what I do, just like a recreational rider.
We ride because we want to. No one forces us.
If we don’t enjoy riding, why do we ride? We could pick a less demanding pastime, like knitting.
- I see riders grinding out repetitions of the same exercise in the hope that the next one will be perfect.
- I see riders hanging on to the saddle horn for dear life, terrified of the next spook or bolt.
- I see riders consumed with envy at the competitor who just beat them on a fancier, flashier horse.
- I see riders in lessons and clinics, feeling discouraged because they feel they will never measure up to their trainer’s expectations.
- I see riders feeling frustrated because their horse either overreacts or tunes them out.
- I see myself feeling disappointed and depressed when I pick up my score sheet for a dressage test.
Where does joy go in those moments? How can we get it back?
Riding with joy does not mean riding in blissful ignorance, like on a dude ranch string where horses take on passengers. We find joy when we feel truly connected. It means riding well enough to communicate in a dialogue, not just a one-way series of commands from the rider. It means understanding the language of our aids, as well as the language of the horse’s back. It means developing a seat that’s balanced and independent enough to do that.
Riding with joy also means preserving what most of us experienced when we first climbed on a horse’s back. It means reconnecting to what we felt when we first realized that a 1000-pound animal graciously allows us to not only hang on, but to engage with his body and mind. Often, this sense of awe and wonder ends up buried underneath a layer of ambition, fear, anxiety, or other emotional roads to oblivion.
When I was a kid, I rode every horse I could, for as long as I could. I did not own a horse. I rode horses and ponies whose owners thought they had better things to do than ride. This was beyond my comprehension; for me, nothing was better than riding – anytime, on any horse, in any weather. Cleaning stalls was not something I really considered a chore, since I at Ieast got to be near the horses while I shoveled manure. I would have been happy to scrub toilets in exchange for riding.
Most of these horses were just trail horses with no pedigree. They had little idea what balance or bend was, or what the rider’s leg should mean. But none of this mattered as long as I got to ride. I could not afford private lessons or expensive riding clothes. Shows happened in a different universe. All this was trivial, though, compared to the joy I experienced.
What has changed since then?
I grew up. I accepted the belief that hard work and competitive ambition is more important than having a good time.
Now I’m recovering from growing up. As I grow old, I’m finding that there is nothing wrong with looking for joy and finding it.