I got the horses in the back

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We all have places we go to relieve some of the stress of our academic and social lives, and for me, going to the barn and seeing my horse taking an afternoon nap after school does just that.

But the general perception of horseback riding is that it’s an elitist sport, and debates regarding $50,000 or $5,000 horses really don’t help. I mean, it seems pretty difficult to find a sport more privileged than that.

The ironic thing is that for all the money we invest, it appears that all we do is go around in circles and jump a few jumps.

While this is partly true, there’s definitely a lot more to the sport than simply gallivanting in expensive clothes.

On the surface, horseback riding seems like a glamorous lifestyle for people who like to throw money around. But, despite all the pricey animals and costly competitions, I’ve found aspects of the sport that are incredibly meaningful to me.

I love volunteering at my barn’s therapeutic riding program just as much as I love the actual riding aspect. At the risk of sounding corny, I feel incredibly happy when the kids I work with totter into the barn calling my name, excited for their 30 minute lesson.

In our everyday lives, we’re often so caught up with ourselves; if I counted the number of times I say “I” in a day, I’d probably hate myself more than my horse hates me when I have to drag him away from the hay.

But being able to volunteer at the barn, spending time helping disabled kids both physically and mentally, gives me the sense that I can actually use my skills for something bigger than myself.

Obviously volunteering isn’t about me, but I find that conversing with the chatty kids as I help them weave through cones is infinitely more gratifying than any 50 cent ribbon I could win at a show.

I do fully enjoy the competition aspect, too. Waking up at 5:30 A.M., seeing the sun rise, and helping my trainers set jumps before a hectic day of running around from ring to ring is addictive. Not to mention that winning rounds and receiving blue ribbons feels pretty great when it seems that all of the afternoons spent preparing have finally come to fruition.

But unlike other sports, horseback riding means having a non-human teammate, an experience in and of itself. Sometimes my horse, Romeo, will refuse a jump because he’s terrified of the box underneath and sometimes he’ll spook or buck simply because of a leaf drifting on the other side of the arena. I don’t have control over these things, and I know it doesn’t do me any good to get frustrated at him, even when the entirety of his 1500 pounds steps on my foot and leaves a bruise on my toe.

In this way, horseback riding has taught me to be patient with humans as well. Just like with horses, I can’t control the way people around me act, so when I’m unhappy, I think about how I can re-adjust my own actions. I believe that the horses are what make the sport so special. Whether I’m using a school pony to help a disabled kid stretch or I’m trying to figure out the most effective way to get 1500 pounds of Romeo to listen to me, I’m definitely learning what it means to care for something other than myself.

In the summer, I’ve gotten used to coming home smelling like horse manure and pungent fly spray and in the winter, when it’s 20º out and too cold to ride, I’ll trek out to the barn to hand-walk Romeo, watching the cold air coming out of both of our noses.

Despite what’s often presented as an inaccessible, flashy, and elitist sport, I feel confident enough to say that no amount of money could compensate for the loyalty and compassion that horses have taught me over the last six years.

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