Riding: Good or Bad? A Reader Question

“I find myself going back and forth in a quandary of whether or not riding a horse is disrespectful to the horse and whether or not it can be done in a way that is not in any way painful for the horse.”

It’s such an interesting question you ask, one that in my experience most thinking people who have horses face at some point. I certainly wouldn’t presume to tell you or anyone what is right for you and your horse. All I can tell you is what I believe to be true about the reasons horses have chosen to stay on this planet and what they bring to their human partners.

Let’s face it, there’s no practical reason for horses not to be well on the way to extinction by now. Their natural habitat is pretty meager and humans have selectively bred for traits that don’t necessarily set them up to succeed in the wild. Their original usefulness to people, as means of transportation, is no longer relevant. So, by many standards, we should have stopped feeding and housing and breeding them decades ago. But we didn’t. Why not?

I think so many people find horses to be essential elements in their lives because the horses negotiated a new deal with the universe to be of service in a new way. We don’t need them to help us explore the frontiers or defeat an enemy or carry heavy loads. So they stuck around to help us face some other, less obvious challenges. To save us from ourselves, in a way.

Ichobod works with one of his riding students.

Ichobod works with one of his riding students.

Ask a person, horse owner or not, why they like horses and at first you’ll hear enthusiastic exclamations about how beautiful horses are, how graceful their movement, how fast they run. Foals and ponies are cute and fuzzy. Stallions are majestic. Mares are sweet and nurturing or fiesty and interesting. But let the question hang in the air a while, especially among people who really do spend time with horses, and you’ll start to hear the deeper reasons. Horses can help us feel our power (sometimes for better, sometimes for worse). They connect us to nature and the earth – just think, if you live and work in a city, the only concrete-free ground you ever touch might be the arena. And they hold up a big mirror and show us who we are, the good bits and the warts, in a non-threatening, judgment-free way that other people just can’t manage.

For those of us born with that mutant “horse” gene, they just make us feel good. We love the sound of them munching sweet-smelling hay and the feeling when they share their breath with us. We love the way they smell and how soft and fluffy or sleek and glossy their coats look and feel. We like the sounds their hooves make on various surfaces – the clippity clop on a paved road and the cushioned thud on green pasture and the thundering roar on a fast racetrack. They’re our friends, our therapists, our family members. They require us to focus, to learn to quiet our mental chatter and learn to just be, to intentionally choose to inhabit our minds and our bodies now, in the present. There’s even an interesting study, I think still ongoing, that shows the heart rates of a human and a horse entrain when they interact. So there is a definite physiological effect to spending time with a horse, even just sitting near one.

How do they choose to interact with us to accomplish all this? The answer to that is as diverse as the horses and humans. I’m lucky to have two horses who have chosen very different paths. Sport, the younger of the two, may never be ridden. He didn’t have a very good start in life and he doesn’t tolerate the feeling of being bound up around the middle of his body. Even the soft fleece “girth” of a bareback pad causes him to dissociate to the point he doesn’t realize when a person is standing next to him. He has other talents and skills and is a wonderful horse. He’s just not a riding horse.

On the other hand, Ichobod, my old gelding, has taught me many lessons that weren’t about riding at all while still making it very clear that he wants to be ridden. He chose and is very content with his role as teacher and he has brought along his riding students very effectively over the past few years. He has quite different lessons to teach each of them and has unique relationships with them that have very little to do with his partnership with me. At 27, you might think I’m overdue “allowing” him to retire. But he loves what he does, he’s good at it and I trust that when it’s time to change, he’ll let me know. I no more believe in forcing a horse to stop doing his job than I believe in forcing him to do a job he doesn’t like.

Sport helps a clinic participant overcome fear of horses.

Sport helps a clinic participant overcome fear of horses.

There is, in my opinion, absolutely no question of riding being disrespectful or cruel at all if you and the horse agree that’s going to be part of your relationship. They’re big, strong animals with reflexes much quicker than ours, so if a horse really, really doesn’t want someone on him the person is not going to stay on. (Not to say that every time a horse “loses” his rider, that means the horse doesn’t want to be ridden. There are many factors.)

Do I think you are capable, either physically or emotionally, of inflicting that kind of abuse on your horse? No, never. To do that you have to completely dominate and break down a horse – and that attitude would have to define your entire relationship with the horse, not just riding time. You’re not going to do anything like that, and I don’t think your horse is the type who would be likely to fall victim to it.

That doesn’t mean that if you decide that riding doesn’t feel right, now or at any time in the future, you shouldn’t choose to spend your horse time differently. There are certainly a lot of good choices – all kinds of fun and beneficial ground exercises you can do. To my way of thinking, you can’t make a wrong choice in this. Just different choices that lead down different paths.

Read a discussion of this topic on Facebook.