I’m at one of those crossroads most people come to at a certain point in their lives. Especially if you’re an athlete and do some kind of sport. There comes a time when you look at this activity you’ve done your whole life and wonder if it’s time to quit.
I have friends who were competitive ice dancers when I met them twelve years ago. They’ve found another passion now and have hung up their skates. They’re happy and still enjoying their new-found hobby, one that doesn’t entail getting up before dawn and driving hours to the only available ice rink for a grueling session in the bitter cold. One that is less brutal to their bodies. Their knees thank them too.
I had a friend who has been a runner as long as I can remember tell me recently that she’s giving it up. Between the plantar fasciitis and torn Achilles tendon, she no longer feels that this is the something she can continue doing. She’s giving yoga at try, and hoping she can make peace with her injuries.
Even my husband, who lives, eats, and breathes soccer has decided in the past year to get certified as a referee. The role of the ref is still an active one, but not as punishing as playing the game itself. He’s still playing as well, but repeated injuries have taken their toll and I think this is how he is planning to transition.
As for me, I’m facing a tough choice in the next couple of months. I need to consider retiring my mare. While we gave up competition years ago, her arthritis is reaching a point where I question whether it makes sense for me to continue riding her. Truth is, we’re both at a certain level of gimpyness that it’s not out of the question that I may be projecting my own issues onto her. But the bottom line is I’m rapidly approaching a point in my life when I may no longer ride horses. It’s not just that my mare deserves to live out the rest of her days in peace eating grass like the horses in the final scene of Black Beauty. Riding is taking its toll on me physically, too.
Oh, I could find another horse to ride if I wanted. Buying a horse doesn’t make a ton of sense: it’s a huge investment and I’m no spring chicken. But there are lots of horses for lease out there, horses that perhaps can no longer compete but can certainly putter around the farm the way I’ve been doing. Horses that someone would gladly loan me simply to get some help paying for their care.
But retiring one horse and picking up with another isn’t like replacing a worn out bicycle with a newer model. Horses are as individual as dogs or children. My mare and I are so attuned, all I have to do is think what I want her to do, and she does it. A subtle shift in weight will make her down transition. Pick up the reins and she’ll start trotting. If I started over with another horse, I’d have to learn the idiosyncrasies of that creature, and no horse, no matter how bombproof, no matter how well-trained, is 100% safe.
The realization that I could get hurt–seriously hurt–has been a creeping concern over the last few years, cracks in the foundation letting water seep into my confidence. I’m no longer the teenager who biked five miles a day after school and mucked stalls just so I could ride the green-broke horses at the only riding stable near me. I’m not the girl in her twenties who would ride any horse any time the opportunity arose, no matter how rank, no matter how evil. I’m not the woman in her thirties who bred her ideal competition horse, raised her from a foal, and competed in the sport for crazy people known as eventing.
Somewhere along the way, as I’ve developed increasing medical issues, my loss of faith in my own body has translated itself into a fear of getting hurt when I ride. There are days when I’m my old confident self, and I ride through a buck without blinking an eye. There are other days when I anticipate trouble during the entire ride–and my horse feels like a lit powder keg beneath me. There are other days when I have a good ride, but can barely move a few hours later. I’ve lived with chronic pain for years. Riding has hurt ever since that bad car accident. I didn’t let it stop me twenty years ago, even when my doctors thought I should quit. But I have to tell you, everything hurts these days, and riding makes it much, much worse. Also, I don’t want my decision to stop riding be as a result of breaking my collarbone–or worse.
From the moment I read Black Beauty as a six-year-old, I sold my soul to have horses in my life. My parents used to joke that they didn’t need an alarm clock, they only needed to put a pony in the backyard and I’d be up at the crack of dawn every day. They kept promising me that pony, along with the mystical farm they’d one day own and the dogs they’d breed. I find it ironic how these were dreams they had for themselves that never materialized, but I went out and got them for my own. All of it. Farm, horses, dogs. (Cats too, since I was forbidden to have any growing up.)
It came with a price though. I made a conscious decision to have horses instead of a life that would let me travel, or live in a major city where I could earn more money. I bought my first horse off a slaughter truck for $800 and spent the equivalent of a SUV payment each month to keep him. I took jobs in rural places so I could keep my horses. The ‘dream’ farm takes more of my time and money than I’d care to admit. Was it worth it? I like to think so. My dad never got his farm, even though he made more than enough money to have that dream life. During the years I spent as his caretaker, the horses were the only things that kept me going at times. The reason for leaving the house, for getting outside, for connecting with nature. It fed my soul.
When I was twelve, I went to my mother and showed her the shabbiness of my riding gear. “I need a new hard hat and boots. I’ve outgrown my riding habit.”
“I’d like to know when you’re going to outgrow this horse habit,” my mother snapped. “It’s terribly expensive.”
“Gee, Mom.” I spoke with Shirley Temple’s innocence. “I don’t think it’s any more expensive than a cocaine habit.”
She put me in the car and took me straight to the tack store.
Yes, I was a bit of a smart-ass, but I suspect my love of horses kept me out of trouble as a teenager. It kept me moving when depression made me want to fold up and lie in a dark room. It kept me physical when my job demanded all my time and energy. I am a horsewoman. It’s part of my identity. To consider giving that up feels like closing a door, not only on a major portion of my life, but who I am as a person as well.
As recently as April 2019, Queen Elizabeth was photographed riding a horse at Windsor Castle, just weeks away from her 93rd birthday. I remind myself that for most of her life, she was able to ride almost daily if she liked, and that she has a whole team of people keep her horses trained and exercised to be as quiet as possible. But it goes to show that my question of whether or not I should keep riding is entirely up to me.
Even if I choose not to ride any longer, nothing will change my lifelong love of these magnificent creatures. Regardless of whether I hang up my bridle or not, I am, and always will be a horsewoman.