Now any sport without the proper introduction or explanation may seem arbitrary and foolish — except for cricket, that seems pretty cut and dry. I myself love hockey, a bunch of concussed players on blades attempting to kill one another over a small rubber disk; baseball, which is essentially people standing around cultivating heatstroke whilst their limbs fall asleep due to a lack of movement; and squash, wherein you are literally hitting a rubber ball into the wall over and over in a plain white room. But each one of these sports is wonderfully fun, full of strategy, and undeniably captivating to the experienced player who has overcome the dreadful first appearance of the game.
Now if you're reading this, odds are you love horses, whether you ride or not. It’s important, however, for those who do ride to understand how the sport might look to some of us who don’t. Simply put, my first impression is that you’re aimlessly walking in circles, maybe with a few jumps here and there. Regardless, it seems as though the horse is doing all the work. Now, if I wanted to walk in circles I could do so myself whilst dodging the cost of equipment. However, even all by myself, I’m guilty of walking into door frames or the occasional sign every now and again. But independently walking safely isn’t quite enough. So, I’m going take up a sport which involves climbing on top of a nine-hundred pound beast, and then jumping over a series of obstacles. In this scenario the consequence of failing to avoid such obstacles seems a little bit harsher. But fear not, for I have a helmet and an unbreakable spirit! With this superfluous protective gear in place — one moment, please, let me just sign my waiver — right then, we embark. With the apparent foolishness of my own sports in mind, I decided to step outside of my preconceived, most likely incorrect, ideas and give riding a try.
So one summer morning I arrived at the barn in my chaps; this is not to be confused with the term “chap” frequently used by elderly British aristocrats in old classic films. After watching the tail end of the lesson before me, my coach got me set to “tack up.” As I led Joey to the tack up stall it dawned on me how incredible it is that such a gigantic beast would even consider letting someone so small by comparison lead the way. I’m sure the only reason he let me hold the reins, apart from his seemingly good natured spirit, was so that I’d feel as if I had an ounce of control. I’m the boss, because Joey said I could be. Moving on.
“Tacking up” in the original Latin means “buckle mania.”
Cue the holistic waterfall soundtrack and pour the cucumber water. I had two realizations at the “grooming” stage: first, horses get a quality massage before every ride, and secondly, that grooming could be such an enjoyable experience. It was quite amazing to see how sensitive such a big animal could be.
A thought-cloud slowly emerged over Joey’s head: “I’m still strong and … yes right there … tough but that doesn’t mean … just a tiny bit to the left … I can’t enjoy this.”
Grooming was an enjoyable experience that was definitely unexpected — a dark horse if you will (forgive me I’ll improve).
“Tacking up” in the original Latin means “buckle mania.” The labyrinth of clips and buckles makes one wonder how ever did they survive by themselves in the wild. However, my coach made this process look easy, and before long we were ready to ride. My coach then explained that you get on the horse from the left because back when soldiers carried swords, it would hang on their left side (since they were right handed), thus making it the easier side to mount on. This practice is conventional now, something I found to be quite interesting. I figured I best leave mine in the car.
I was at first a little taken back by the lack of detailed instructions before getting on, but I can now see the wisdom in hindsight. As I climbed the stairway to heaven, each step bringing me closer to an early judgement day, or so it felt, a montage of every clumsy fall I’ve ever had played in slow motion in my head to the theme “Everybody Hurts” by R.E.M.
So I silenced the chatter in my head and took the plunge. When I first sat down I felt like a kid on a toboggan, sitting at the top of a massive hill, scared to embark, staying motionless, as if a small breeze would be enough to send me plummeting to an unrecoverable injury.
Then it hit me, my life is in the hands (hooves) of an animal. Yes sir, it sure didn’t look this tall from the ground. Let me just get myself acclimatized — wow, we’re already moving. Just breezed right over steps 2-15.
At first it sort of felt as though I were on a small boat, and as if each step Joey took was another wave rolling by. After a few minutes I got used to the height and I got the hang of maintaining my balance. Just as soon as that happened my coach asked me to stand up in the saddle while Joey was walking. I’m sorry, come again? Now if riding while seated feels like being in a boat set against the waves, standing up sure felt like a wing-walking stunt on an airplane. While my level of comfort did improve, I never quite got comfortable at that exercise.
Before long I learned how to get Joey to walk, to stop, and to turn. Once it was just the two of us without the lead line, we conquered the maze of pylons, and had a nice stroll. At times the direction was more the result of a negotiation rather than an order. I felt like the substitute teacher who everyone knows is unfamiliar with the rules and can’t obtain order from the class. We acted as more of a constitutional democracy rather than a dictatorship. Luckily for me Joey was good natured enough to usually cast his vote in my favour. To end the lesson my coach put Joey back on the lead line and we did some trotting. This felt like riding a jack hammer which was hammering another jack hammer in the coach of a runaway train. After a few separate trials I somewhat understood how to move with the horse; a movement called spotting.
“ ... Joey was back in his stall quite content and unchanged. I, however, was ecstatic and forever changed.”
After the riding portion of the lesson was over I dismounted and walked Joey back into the main area. But before this could happen I had to clean out the dirt from his hooves. My coach instructed me to pick up his leg and use a particular tool to accomplish this. So I picked up one of Joey’s hooves, which wasn’t as hard as you might think, and then scraped the dirt out. The reason I mention this is because riders are truly brave people. I mean, to place your head right in the kick radius of a nine-hundred pound animal is, simply put, gutsy. The whole experience is quite admirable, and to each of you, I tip my hat.
After a quick wash and a carrot, Joey was back in his stall quite content and unchanged. I, however, was ecstatic and forever changed.
The nice thing about riding was that there was no prerequisite skill required that inhibited me from getting on Joey right off the bat. I was able to ride on my first day and enjoy my experience (and believe me it was quite enjoyable despite the parody of this blog). Having a calm and experienced coach and a good natured horse were a necessity.
From my continued riding experience I find that, for me, riding isn’t just about the act of being on a horse, it’s also about enjoying the accumulative experience. Driving to the barn, interacting with the barn community, catching up with your horse whilst getting them ready, learning a little, riding a little, and stopping for coffee on the way home while discussing that day’s ride. Furthermore, learning to ride doesn’t have to take anything away from your other interests, and it can find its own place in your life. The lesson for me was that, as we all discover time and time again, appearance doesn’t equate with reality, and with this in mind I encourage you to discover your own hidden interests. As it turns out, life on the lead line isn’t such a bad place to be.
Photo Credits in order of appearance:
"Manchester Farm Sunset" by Anthony - CC BY-SA
"Matthew & Joey" - Doug Allen
"Southend Airshow" by Graham Dean - CC BY-SA
"Yachting in the mist of the fog" by PanAmerican09
WHO IS MATTHEW ALLEN?
Matthew Allen is a third-year Life Sciences student at the University of Toronto. After graduating, Matthew hopes to pursue a degree in law or business. Since discovering his interest in horses, when he is not on campus, you might happen to spot him at the barn.