I’m Going Rogue: Saying Bye-Bye to ‘Conventional’ Riding (For Now)

Is it just me, or is galloping across a field like, really fun? Or riding bareback. Swimming on a horse. Watching the sun set between a pair of ears. Herding cattle. Fox hunting. Going on a trail ride so long that you need to pack snacks and water.

Not to discount ‘regular’ riding – lessons and working student positions and showing and ribbons, are all very fun as well. They solidly (borderline ‘viciously’) drum in the fundamentals of riding and horsemanship.

I personally did the very conventional route, including an instructor’s certificate, coaching, grooming abroad and then pursuing competitive goals so hard-headedly that I eventually crashed and burned. I was depressed and angry at the world – and then I moved on, theorizing that the universe was trying to teach me some kind of lesson. The passion and work ethic I had for horses shuffled over to ‘career,’ which I do not regret.

I drifted, riding-wise, catching rides on some really nice horses through being connected to some very kind and generous people. But they were just that – catch rides, sometimes short-term, sometimes long-term.  I became very grateful for that skill foundation – the one that made it possible to phone people up and say, “I have no money, but I can hack your horse around without ruining them.” Trail rides, the odd lesson, and even a cross-country clinic happened almost magically. It was on my own schedule. I had one foot in the horse world and the other one out. Horse ownership was still a stratosphere away financially and time-wise, and I was fine with that… But I was feeling slightly lost, after the intensity in which I had previously pursued the sport.

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Recently, my boyfriend asked me what my top five travel wish list locations were, and one of the ones I listed off was Mongolia. “There’s this horseback endurance race called the Mongol Derby that is on my bucket list,” I said.

What?

It had blurted out, but when I thought about it, I had been low-key lusting over “other” aspects of the horse world for years. Endurance was one – I mean, what is more primal than getting from point A to point B on horseback? Polo was another. Sidesaddle (how ladylike!). Even western riding, which I had always teased for its armchair-like saddles. Pentathlons. Someone mentioned horseback archery and falconry to me and I almost lost my marbles. That’s a thing?

There’s also the very simple pleasures and wonders that horses can bring you. Anything fun or amazing is magnified by being on top of a horse. Spotting wildlife. Getting lost on the trails with a friend and ending up in a neighboring town. Wading through deep, untouched snow. Reaching up to grab the blackberries that pedestrians just can’t reach. Sitting astride is like looking at the world through a pair of rose-colored glasses.

I’ve encountered interesting horse people who definitely do not ‘fit the mold.’ A bushman hunter who carved his own saddle trees out of wood, and once scared a grizzly bear away by simply staring at it. A tough-looking cop who was endearingly passionate about caring for his horse’s tail. A legally blind woman who still trail rides solo. A wizened, geriatric cowgirl with a waist-length silver ponytail, who gifted me her silver spurs and imparted advice on how to train foals.

I thought back to the first time I ever sat on a horse. My dad placed me on top of one, holding onto the back of my fleece sweater. My face erupted into a huge grin, and I reached forward and wrapped mane around my little chubby hands. When he tried to remove me, I screamed bloody murder, grasping that poor horse’s hair with all my tiny might. No way was he going to get me off.

What did that little toddler love so much about that moment? The height? The proximity to the animal? I can’t even remember – I was that young.

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One thing that has always fascinated me about horses is that they touch almost every culture and moment of history in the world. They’ve adapted alongside humans, although some things have not changed at all, which in and of itself has this very nostalgic appeal. There have been times when, halfway through cantering across a field, I closed my eyes, thinking that maybe a thousand years ago someone felt the exact same thing. That’s cool (and also a little dorky, I know).

The principles of riding – balance and an independent seat – are the same across every single discipline. There is no skill you can learn that doesn’t somehow translate back to jumping or dressage. We talk about cross-training horses, but what about cross-training riders? So as I stand at the fringes of conventional equestrian sport, with no strings attached to any particular riding goals, no horse, and a baseline of skills that could be transferred to just about anything, I wonder: should I just try everything?

I guess I’ll go ride across a desert or something now. I’ll keep you posted.

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