One of my sisters once asked me, “What do you do out there on the farm alone every day?” I responded, “Are you kidding? I’m never alone! My animals are constantly around me.” While it’s true that I don’t often have human companionship during my days at the farm, I know there are many who will concur that animal companionship is often equally, and sometimes even more, rewarding.
As I’ve often told my husband (always with a grin on my face), “My animals do what I tell them.”
And so, I found this quote by Jane Smiley particularly appropriate for this blog:
“I learned why ‘out riding alone’ is an oxymoron: An equestrian is never alone, is always sensing the other being, the mysterious but also understandable living being that is the horse.”
One of my friends asked me quite recently, “Do you ride every day?” It’s not the first time I’ve been asked that. My standard response is always, “I wish.”
The truth is, I don’t ride very often at all. The reason for that is because I ride solely for pleasure. I don’t have beef cattle to move to another pasture or dairy cattle to bring to the barn, so I ride only when the weather is gorgeous and my other work is finished.
Do you have any idea how rare that combination is?
Now that doesn’t mean I don’t spend time with my horses, because I do. In fact, I can only ride one at a time but I can spend time on the ground with all three of them, so the argument could be made that I actually spend more time with them by not riding.
But I miss riding. I miss the perspective that one gets while sitting on a horse’s back. I find it extraordinary that a creature as powerful and athletic as a horse will allow a creature as puny and feeble as a human to sit on his back – the same back that a cougar would leap upon in search of its next meal.
So, I did a little soul-searching recently and asked myself, “What is it, exactly, that keeps me from riding more?”
I think I figured it out. Too much of it seems like work. And believe me when I tell you, I have quite enough work at the farm. But in order to take a long ride off the farm, I must first work BJ in the round pen to get the “skittish” out of him, then I groom him, and then I saddle him just right. When I get back from our ride – both of us worn out – not only do I need to groom him again, but I also need to groom BB and Zip who managed to work themselves into a frothy frenzy during our absence.
The entire process takes hours, and it is far too easy to convince myself that “I don’t have time for this.” And so, another day goes by when I don’t ride.
During my soul-searching, I reflected on my days growing up on our family farm when I rode often, but sometimes only for fifteen or twenty minutes at a time because many of those rides were without a saddle. It was all so simple and quick. Why couldn’t I do that again?
I came to a decision. I was going to teach BJ to let me ride bareback.
I used to ride BB bareback often, but now that she has arthritic front knees, I can no longer ride her at all. During BJ’s training years I didn’t feel confident riding him without a saddle, but now that he is ten, he has settled down considerably. I decided to give it a go.
I’ve mentioned before that BJ is a huge horse. And I am not a huge person. Was there some risk of injury? Possibly. But here’s the thing. Did you know that the horse has the largest eyes of any land mammal? They’re eyes that look right into the human soul. If they see kindness and goodness, that’s what the horse will give back. If I didn’t trust BJ, how on earth could I ask him to trust me?
I put on his bridle and led him next to the corral rails. I told him “Whoa”, then climbed up on the rails high enough so that I could slide onto his back. Standing on the rail with my left foot, I swung my right foot across his back and rested it there to gauge his response. He didn’t move. Gathering my courage, I said, “Here we go” and slid my entire body onto his back. He jerked his head up, but didn’t take a step. I could tell he was thinking, “Well, this is different!”
Several times during our ride around the corral, he tossed his head and snorted, but I scolded him and he immediately settled down. To dismount, I brought him to a stop, swung my right leg across his body, and slid down to the ground. But he is so tall that it stung my feet when I hit the ground. So, I again took him to the rail, mounted him and rode around a bit, but I dismounted by bringing him back to the rail and climbing down the same way I got on.
I’ve been riding BJ bareback for several weeks now, often just ten or fifteen minutes at a time. I get the sense that BJ understands the fragility and precariousness of my position on his back. His gait is easy and steady. And when I mount or dismount, he stands perfectly still and doesn’t squeeze me against the rail.
He takes care of me. Because I’m not riding alone.
(I describe the scariest ride of my life in the August chapter of my second book, Another Year on the Family Farm.)
Next Week: Hibernation