Raised in a Barn: Who Horses Make Us
A few days ago, I was chatting with one of the barn dads, explaining how proud I was of my riders and how important it was to me that they were able to do things for themselves. He then said something that really struck me: “you have to think, most of these kids aren’t going to be professionals, so the lessons they’re learning have to carry over. They have to be life lessons.” He’s right - the vast majority of young equestrians do not grow up to be professional riders. Many of them will stick with horses into adulthood, but many of them will not. So what role does equestrianism have in a young rider’s life? Is it just pony kisses and blue ribbons until they’re off to college? Or is there more to it, some overarching quality that transcends the boundaries of equestrian sport and touches on other aspects of life?
I very firmly argue the latter. The lessons learned in the barn go so far beyond how to wrap a leg and how to count strides. Twenty-something years into this sport, I venture to say that these animals have made me who I am. I don’t mean that they’ve made me a professional rider and trainer, though that much is true. I mean they’ve woven the very fabric of who I am as a human being, my qualities and characteristics and values. And the most amazing part is that all the while I was learning these life lessons and being shaped by my sport, it was disguised as fun.
On my drive home after that talk, I did a lot of thinking. What life lessons are my riders learning in the barn? What values are they absorbing, knowingly or otherwise, from our riding program? What can I do to ensure that they learn all the right ones, while still having fun and enjoying the sport for what it is? What life lessons have I learned from the horses?
The biggest and most multi-faceted of all of the lessons, responsibility is learned in spades in the barn. Children in my program are in charge of the grooming and riding-related care of the horses, cleaning and conditioning tack, and those with their own horses have the added responsibility of their own animal. They learn to be responsible for their horses, the equipment, their time, their work ethic, their actions, their commitment... The list could go on forever.
Respect for the horses, respect for their elders, respect for their surroundings... Students in equestrian programs quickly learn to have respect for those around them. In a sport that centers around living, breathing creatures with minds of their own, following instructions is crucial.
The thing with riding is that it requires a lot of commitment to get to be any good. Though some riders are more natural in the saddle than others, there are no shortcuts to success in this sport. The only way to get great is to work hard and stay committed to the process. Even on days when you just don’t really feel like it, the commitment to your horse and your trainer will drag you off the couch and get you to the barn.
Empathy & Compassion
Horses are very emotional animals. Add in the disconnect of speaking a very different language, and horses require handlers who are empathetic and compassionate. When the horse is afraid, you have to be reassuring instead of angry. When the horse doesn’t understand, you have to be more clear instead of rough. When a rider in your group is having a bad day, you have to be kind instead of mocking. Opportunities for empathy abound in the sport, and riders who learn this skill will be kinder and more successful in life.
Allow me to tell you a story. At a regional championship show last year, one of my students had a lovely jumping round up until she jumped the wrong last fence. An honest mistake, there were two identical jumps right next to each other, but going off course equals disqualification. The judge, however, didn’t notice that she had jumped the wrong jump and placed her 3rd in the class. Despite adults and children alike telling her not to say anything and just be happy with the ribbon, this student immediately said we needed to tell the steward about the mistake. This kind of integrity is what I hope to create in my riders through this sport.
The fact of the sport is that no one wins every class they enter. Learning to take the highs with the lows is crucial in riding and in life in general. Riders develop strong sportsmanship skills through horse showing, riding in groups, and even just in riding-related friendships. They learn to be good losers and good winners, and how to pick themselves - or their friends - up and get back to the grind.
One of the favorite quotes of all time is “courage is being scared to death, and saddling up anyway.” A sport involving 1500-pound animals takes a lot of courage as it is. Reaching for goals and stepping out of comfort zones is all part of the game, and this requires riders to develop courage and bravery.
Being punctual is extremely important in life and yet seems to be a hard to find quality. Riders learn to be punctual in our lesson program, as they have to get to the ring on time in order to get the most out of their lesson. Horse shows add another layer, especially when riders realize that not being to the ring on time means missing their class!
My overall favorite, grit is a small word that carries a lot of meaning. Grit is being afraid and doing it anyway. Grit is getting knocked down 7 times and standing up 8. Grit is doing it even though you’re tired. Grit is working ten times harder just to prove them wrong. Grit is grinding day in and day out, being passionate about the process and obsessed with success. Equestrians who truly wish to understand horses and to succeed develop this ability to work harder than anyone else, to be more passionate than anyone else, and to hop right back up ready to try it again when it doesn’t go right the first time.
I think back on how horses have molded these qualities into me as I’ve grown up, and I think of all of the qualities they’re still teaching me. I think about who horses have made me, and how it was all disguised as fun.