After more than a year of pandemic quarantine, many of us are starved for contact, for interactions—a hug, a shared joke, and unmasked smiles. A pet is one way to safely share a hug and enjoy time with a friend—a dog or cat, fish or bird. But what about something or someone more substantial than that pet rabbit or gerbil? Have you thought about getting acquainted with a six foot-tall, 1,000-pound intelligent creature who can respond to your moods and will listen discretely to your secrets? Working with and caring for a horse could safely provide some of the emotional and physical warmth we’ve been craving. Horses and horseback riding might be the activity your family has been looking for, a sport you and/or your child can enjoy now. Riding provides opportunities for friendship, exercise, and skill development—no matter what your age. Sporting events, school athletics, and even the casual pickup game of baseball or basketball are dishearteningly dangerous during the pandemic. We’re left with a few “safe’ sports—singles tennis, single-handed sailing, and… horseback riding among them. Horses and riding can be both a hobby and a sport even during this pandemic.
Since it’s fun to have some basic knowledge of the “game” before you participate, here are a few bits of information about horses. You can toss these into a conversation to impress your friends; they may want to take up riding too:
- Horses are herd animals: They feel more comfortable following a leader or moving in a group. As a rider, you will be the leader your horse will trust and follow; that will require confidence.
- Horses are prey animals: That means they instinctively protect themselves and react to what they perceive as danger. As a rider, you must protect your mount by guiding and directing it to avoid danger and injury; that will require concentration and careful observation.
- As of the 2014 survey by the Kentucky Equine Research Institute, over 80,000 horses reside in 16,000 locations in Maryland; 700 of are licensed stables. “Maryland claims to have more horses per square mile than any other state,” according to Equinews.
- There are 2,000 miles of riding trails in Maryland. Lots of beautiful places to explore on horseback, from Calvert Cliffs to the Susquehanna River.
To get started with this new activity, you and your child may want to learn to care for and interact with horses, perhaps volunteering at a local farm or stable. From that acquaintance, you can move on to horseback riding where the rider develops skills like self-control and patience, which are prized in most sports. Teacher and mother of two, Megan Ells-Perry is a skilled rider and horse trainer. She has spent her career working with children in the classroom and with horses on the farm. “Working with a horse requires that I regulate my own emotions. The horse senses if I’m tense or distracted,” she says. “Horses live in the moment. They’re very responsive to the people who are caring for, handling, or riding them. If I’m riding, or working a horse from the ground, I have to stay in the present moment, just as my horse is. The horse needs me to stay grounded, in the moment. That’s an important life skill that I need to practice.”
In addition to helping us relax and regulate our feelings, there are other skills we can cultivate as we take up riding. Like other sports, riding demands the synchronization of mind and body to achieve mastery. Physical balance must be combined with mental concentration. Cooperation between the horse and rider must be practiced, the way a quarterback or a captain of a swim team unites the team under her or his leadership. And, the rider must learn strategic planning, thinking ahead as to the path, the pace, and the goal for each riding experience. Riders learn to practice high-level observation and problem solving. For example, trail riding demands the rider anticipate dangers the horse might encounter such as uneven ground or startling distractions.
Guiding a horse through a jumper’s course takes strength on the part of both horse and rider, as well as balance, coordination, and experience. In any type of riding, the rider and horse must be fully aware of one another’s emotional state. Confidence on the part of the rider encourages the horse to obey and trust the rider’s directions so they work as a team. Attentiveness is also critical; if a rider’s attention strays from the horse and the course at hand, the ride will falter. Expand
Training to be intensely focused is an important skill for any sport, and particularly for riders. Controlling and directing the animal requires concentration at every moment. The rider must synchronize his or her body with the horse’s, and command that animal although that animal is many times larger and strong-willed. Essential to the rider’s success is teamwork—respect between the rider and her or his mount. While other sports may require coordination with team members on a defined playing field, riding demands coordination with the team member who cannot see you, but is propelling you through the event. You must call the plays, be the strategist for both of you. Without your guidance and the horse’s cooperation, success will elude you.
Learning and practicing sportsmanship is a valued quality in athletic events, and particularly so in horseback riding. Sportsmanship recognizes the importance of generous, honest, and fair behavior, treating others with respect—particularly that 1,000-pound animal that will carry you through the event safely and successfully. As the rider becomes experienced, she or he learns the rules and acquires skills and experience. Once the rider learns the elements and rules of dressage or cross-country or pleasure riding, he or she also figures out that the well-being of the rider and mount is the most important goal.
Like most sports, you’ll want to be sure the rider enjoys spending time with teammates, getting to know them, becoming familiar with the unspoken signals of teamwork. If you’re a rider, your teammate is your horse. The rider and the horse are a team, each with its own unique role to play in the sport. If you or your child is not sure horseback riding is the sport for him or her, volunteering at a horse rescue farm provides an opportunity to discover if there’s an affinity there—before you invest in expensive equipment and lessons. There are a variety of horse recue organizations in Maryland. These organizations are always looking for volunteers to help care for the horses. You might be shown how to groom, feed, or exercise the horses, giving you the opportunity to discover whether you are comfortable and enjoy working with horses. (Usually, volunteers must be teens or older.)
The next level of involvement with the sport of horseback riding may be selecting a place to begin your training. The type of riding you are to learn may depend on the instructor and stable or barn where you take lessons. Owning a horse is seldom a first step for novice riders. Just as a competitive swimmer seldom begins by building a pool, a rider may wait years to buy her or his own horse. Instead, investing in riding lessons allows you to use a horse owned by the stable offering the lessons. Riding lessons may seem expensive, but you are getting the use of an expensive horse and the equipment needed to ride that horse, along with the instructor’s experience and time. There are many stables across Maryland that offer lessons as well as other horse-related services. It’s wise to get recommendations from friends, if possible, or to research your options on the internet, noting the endorsements included on a stable’s website.
There are some basic considerations when you are choosing a riding instructor from those available at the stable where you decide to ride. You can expect to be instructed in three areas: horse care, training (yourself and the horse), and riding. When you meet with an instructor be prepared to ask a few questions. See how she or he responds to you. Is she comfortable being questioned? Does he give answers that are clear to you? Is there a good feeling established between you? Trust your judgement. You or your child will get much more out of riding lessons if you and the instructor get along. You might even check to see if the instructor is certified.
There are two common certifications, either the American Riding Instructors Association (ARIA) or the Certified Horsemanship Association (CHA). Finally, ask about costs. You don’t want any surprises there. Are you paying for a lesson of a specific length? Will you pay for a block of lessons? Must those lessons be taken before an expiration date? Are there stated goals for the lessons? What equipment does the stable provide and what equipment is your responsibility? Remember, as with any sport, you or your child should enjoy learning; the training should be fun. If you get an uncomfortable feeling while you’re talking with a particular instructor, it may be best to keep looking. Interview a few other instructors at other stables until you find someone who makes you feel comfortable and enthusiastic about riding lessons. Expand
Once you’ve found a place to learn to ride, you’ll be ready to invest in the essential equipment. Your instructor may give you a list of equipment suggestions, but you may want to do some research, so you have an idea of your investment before getting too deeply committed to the sport. Along with the horse you ride and that horse’s tack (saddle, bridle, etc.) that are owned by the stable, the clothes you purchase and wear are important if you are to enjoy riding and remain safe. The riding helmet is critical and should be new. (Old helmets may be damaged or brittle, unable to provide the essential safeguards you will need.) Look on the helmet’s label for “SEI Certified.” The Safety Equipment Institute (SEI) monitors safety equipment for most sports.
Next in importance are the riding boots. They don’t have to be elegant leather, but they should have only slight tread and half-inch heels. The heels are vital to keeping your feet from sliding out of the stirrups. (Winter boots won’t work, since they have deep tread for snow and ice.) A bright colored vest and shirt will help the rider stand out against the grays, browns, and greens of the ring and field. (Of course, dressage has very specific attire for competitive events.) Pants and undergarments should be chosen for comfort. Two-way stretch is useful for riding britches, though jeans are acceptable; avoid baggy styles that may bunch and rub against the skin. Close-fitting gloves will help protect your hands as you grasp the leather reins. That’s about all you need.
In this difficult time of isolation and loss, Ells-Perry points out the value of horses and riding as therapy. Horseback riding and simply spending time with these intelligent, empathic, beautiful creatures can comfort us. As an elementary school teacher, Ells-Perry has worked with children with special needs such as Autism, ADHD, ADD, and Asperger’s Syndrome. She and her husband, attorney George Perry, have raised their children around horses. “Everyone has personal challenges, especially now,” she says. “Engaging with a horse brings a lot of joy, builds confidence, patience, and self-control. Horses don’t care if your highlights have grown out or you don’t feel like talking. Working with a horse decreases hyperactivity and develops sustained attention…A horse provides immediate feedback. If you stop paying attention to the horse, it stops paying attention to you—simple to see and understand.” Ells-Perry points to Maryland Therapeutic Riding located in Crownsville, which has real success helping special needs children, and even veterans, through horses and horseback riding. (horsesthatheal.org)
Finally, there is simply joy in spending time with horses and riding. Ells-Perry observes, “Horses read your intent; they’re sensitive to your emotional state. We can all use some empathy right now.” If all these skills and qualities seem worthwhile to you, you may be ready to try horseback riding as your hobby or sport of choice. Perhaps you’re looking for a safe sport for your child, one that encourages all the fine character traits of competitive sports but keeps your young athlete out of the six-foot danger zone and away from unmasked competitors. Saddle up!