My second exercise obsession has six legs

by Jennifer Stevenson

After swimming for two years every single day, I fell in love with a new sport: horseback riding.  My husband and I began taking lessons at a hunter-jumper barn, which means they wanted me to sit on top of this enormous animal and then ride it at a fence and, presumably, go over the fence with the horse, staying on the whole time.


This terrified me, but I wanted it sooooo badly.  Unlike swimming, riding is a high-impact sport—higher than I want it to be sometimes—and if I mess up, I might hurt the horse as well as myself.  So the stakes went up significantly.


But many good things have come of my riding.

o      I am now sorta-kinda coordinated.  That is to say, I can walk, chew gum, play guitar, and do the Limbo all at once.  There are about twenty-three messages a rider can send a horse at any given moment, and only five or six are called for.  The trick is learning to give just the ones you want to give, and not flood the poor beast with disinformation.


o      I’m also not afraid of anything, broadly speaking, that a horse can do around me.  Or, if they are about to start doing really wack stuff, I know when that is liable to happen and I get the heck out of the way pronto.  I still get surprised when a horsefly bites a horse when I’m in the stall with him, for example, and occasionally by mean horse tricks.  There is no defense against cataclysm or calculated meanness…the first time.  I once bit a horse back who bit me.  Startled heck out of him, and he didn’t do it again.


o      I’ve gotten to know how horses think.  Most of them are very generous, good-hearted creatures.  They tolerate my mistakes and they reward my good behavior in a very humble, mellow way.  Thank goodness.   A humble, mellow gesture from a horse is still a lot of gesture, because they’re so darned big.


o      I don’t mind the dirt that comes with horses.  Horses are like babies, in that they radically revise your standards of cleanliness.  If your sandwich falls in the aisle, you have five seconds to pick it up and brush off the big chunks before it is officially inedible.


o      I started doing sit-ups every day.  This was because I realized that if I had no abs, I couldn’t stop myself from thumping the poor horse on the back with every stride.  They grunt when you thump their backs, you know.  A piteous sound.  My love for animals compelled me to build up my core.


o      I have a kind of physical confidence that I never had before.  There’s nothing like making a 2,000-lb animal obey me.  It’s awesome!  Plus, with time, I have come to no-longer-suck at riding.  Horses who once scared me are now fun to ride.


o      I get to watch girls age seven to twelve do the stuff I’m doing—and often better—and see their confidence and strength and coordination blossom.  English-style riding is a 99% female world.  Female empowerment perfumes the air.  My heart bursts with pride for them.


Have you learned anything from a horse?



My second exercise obsession has six legs — 5 Comments

  1. Jennifer, have you read The Hearts of Horses, by Molly Gloss? I think you would really enjoy it. It’s about a horse gentler in eastern Oregon during the first World War.

  2. My sister always had a horse while we were growing up; I was just “around” horses and didn’t think I cared about them one way or the other . . . until Barbaro lost his fight. I was driving, and I had to pull over on the shoulder when the sports guy read the news. I started crying, and couldn’t stop.

    I learned something from THAT horse — how to fight courageously when you have a shot, and how to let go when you know it’s over.

  3. Vonda, I hadn’t heard about Molly’s book–I should definitely look at it!

    Alice, that was a really sad story, wasn’t it? But there are non-sad horse stories. I think. The fact is, every horse has a sad story, unless it lives to age 30 and spends its last years loafing in a pasture.

    That’s the sharp edge of the horse world. And the reason why I don’t own a horse myself. They’re only good to ride for about fifteen years, but they can live to 30, and there you are with a horse you can’t ride but have to care for. If you sell it, that’s just passing the responsibility off to a stranger, and can you trust them not to send him off for dog food? Nope. Treat him well? Double nope. I wouldn’t do it to a cat.

    Of course cats are cheap to take care of, unless they need surgery or something, and the difference between a cat being a perfect companion and a cat being utterly useless is indistinguishable.

    Horses are big, needy, not super-bright about avoiding danger or damage, and really expensive when they get sick. In fact they’re expensive even when they’re not sick. It’s like owning a boat that poops.

  4. I got a horse for my 7th birthday — way before I hit the age when most little girls beg for one. I think the first line of a story I did as oral storytelling sums the situation up best: “What you got to understand is that the horse was my daddy’s idea.” My father grew up in West Texas and was a sheep rancher before WWII. He wanted his daughters to grow up understanding their heritage.

    While I never developed a classic horse passion, I loved my horse, Sue (honestly, that was what I named her), who was a cranky part-Mustang sorrel who took every new rider under the nearest overhanging branch to see if they were smart enough to stay on.

    I’m a city person now, for the most part, but there was a lot to be said for growing up outside of town with 15 acres and a horse to ride. Of course, I spent most of my time inside with my nose in a book.

  5. Ann Crispin has a horse that is over 30 years old. She got it when it was 18 months old; now it is blind and frail but she’s still nursing it along.
    My daughter got riding lessons when she was 8 or 9. In retrospect it was a big mistake. A girl already blessed with a strong mind learned at a visceral level that large hairy beasts, dominated with will and at need boot and spur, can be made to do anything. She is now applying those life lessons an officer in the US Army; her platoon adores her.