Why Don’t You Ride?

“Why don’t you ride?” It’s the question we dread. Sometimes the people who ask are neophytes who don’t understand that in the arc of a horse’s life, there are many phases, many unexpected turns that change our plans, and many mysteries that take years to unravel. Sometimes the people who ask are longtime horse owners with sympathy in their voices because they do understand. We exchange bittersweet smiles and ask, “How many horses do you have to own before you have one to ride, right?” I don’t know the answer, but I have three horses, none rideable.

Here is what the neophytes (and other railbird horse owners) don’t know. Most don’t understand calming signals and miss pain messages. Horses in pain are frequently mistaken for horses with training issues. Then the horses end up being punished for being in pain and they become even more anxious. Many saddles don’t fit and bad hoof care is common. A horse doesn’t have to show an overt limp to have a sore back or low-level lameness and not every rider is perceptive enough to feel it in the saddle. Do you know the biggest cause of chronic lameness in our horses? Putting them back to work too soon. So, rather than listening to the advice of amateurs, we err on the side of waiting longer than railbirds think we should. 

We’re likely to get complaints from those less educated if we have a young horse who we don’t start until four. Yes, that’s when his growth plates have closed in his legs, although those in his back are not finished until he’s eight. Others may bait us, but starting horses too young creates physical issues while giving a horse time to grow up is a better practice.

There are chronic health conditions like metabolic issues and gastric conditions, serious but not entirely visible to the untrained eye. A cynical railbird might deny, saying the ailment wasn’t around when we were kids. Back in the day, horses died of these ailments but we, some of us anyway, are hoping to keep horses alive, even if we can’t ride them. Some have inconsistent symptoms but you try everything possible. You can’t retire him and you can’t ride him. Limbo is the worst place. And sure, another horse owner might euthanize them, but we “don’t ride.” 

Not all horse owners are aware that by the time a horse is seventeen or eighteen, they are beginning to ease out of their prime. We hate it because it’s usually when we’re having our best rides but we begin to mitigate what we do. We start joint supplements and consider fewer extreme trails and riding with more gratitude. Others might think we’re babying them when we stop competing and slow down to keep our horse supple and sound. As much as we hate it, we begin to think about retirement dates because we are the sort who doesn’t ride a horse into the ground. “At some point, we need to stop valuing what they do for us and shift to being grateful for what they’ve done.” If you genuinely love horses, then you honor their age, young or past prime, and act accordingly. Not everyone has that compassion, so railbirds might heckle you. Trust horses to know the truth.

Those critical voices may feel defensive about their own horse practices but have a verbal bravado that can border on rude. It’s almost a rule that we should act tougher than we are, not one of our best traits. Humans have normalized harsh treatment of horses for so long that it’s become the status quo. You know better and that can be threatening. In this crazy world, when we get to a certain age, hallelujah, we do what we think is right. Yay, us. We become brave enough and strong enough to put the horse’s needs above our desire. We keep them, care for them, and try to tolerate those who understand less about horses and criticize us. 

Sometimes, we are the ones to make the decision to not ride but it is never our first choice. There are painful but good reasons: we need to focus on the kids or elder care. Maybe work is requiring more attention or we’re dealing with an illness or recovery from an injury. And as much as we do our best, our lives are not our own. Once we’re pulled away, it can be hard to get back.

Be clear though. We all share a dream that we are lifted high and carried weightlessly, the horse’s mane tickling our nose as the earth rushes beneath his hooves. We love riding. We always will. Half the time, we have a wild desire to ride while we’re literally riding. Stepping away is never the first choice. A neophyte will ask why we don’t ride because they don’t know better, but it still burns. 

The worst part about not riding is the judgment. There’s an unspoken hierarchy that says if you don’t ride it’s a kind of failure complete with blame and shame. You’re too old-you’re too fat-you’re too scared-blah-blah-blah. It’s as if all you’ve learned and the lengths you’ve gone to for your horse amount to nothing if you don’t get to ride. It’s as if aging, either you or your horse, is a mistake or fault. It isn’t true. NOT TRUE. But sometimes that railbird criticism is our own voice, we just want to ride even if we have a list of responsible reasons we can’t get another horse.

It’s rare when both horse and rider choose to stop at the same time. If the rider stops first, the horse is fine. They don’t care if we ride them. If the horse stops first or falls into nebulous health issues layered with unknowable answers, that’s hard. Sometimes there are other activities we can share with our horse: Ground driving, hiking, horse agility, grazing in the pasture and being grateful. It isn’t the same but we make do. We change the things we can. We can find other horses to ride or put our love into volunteering helping horses. 

A neophyte doesn’t understand the hole left when we must decide between our love for riding and our love for our horses. Unlike some horse owners who ship off lame horses, we keep ours. All of us are role models; we state our beliefs in our actions, paying back what horses have given us. It’s the right thing, but that doesn’t mean we stop loving to ride. It means we find a different kind of courage.

What to do if all the answers are no? Your horse is not rideable and you don’t want to ride other horses? I won’t trivialize those deep sad feelings. Any horse will tell you getting old is the most challenging ride of all.

I do know that one day we will all be past riding. I expect, just like always, we’ll cry if we can’t ride. It isn’t childish; it’s our passion. I like to think in the next world, there will be more justice and the horses will decide who gets to ride. 

 Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward 

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16 thoughts on “Why Don’t You Ride?”

  1. “in the next world, there will be more justice and the horses will decide who gets to ride”

    Such a strong endorsement of those people who seek to understand and care about the feelings and needs of those less powerful. I hope not only horses but every sentient being will someday (soon!) benefit from this profound awareness.

  2. However did you know, Anna, that this very question has been on my mind recently? After reading your essay, I left my computer to have a good cry. I stopped riding my Dover several years ago when it became clear to me that I simply couldn’t find what it was that “ailed” him…poor saddle fit?…my own anxiety as we hit the trail? To be sure, there were many good rides that kept me searching for that magic answer that would see us back on the trail with our friends. It never came for me. Our last times were his choice, together alone in a very small paddock where he donned a bareback pad and halter/lead. I left him to graze, went over to sit on a fence, and waited. My reward came when he’d pick his head up and walk over to where I was to “present” himself for me to climb aboard. It was as close to that magic answer as I ever had. But it was and still is more than enough.

  3. Well, as you know, this is a theme playing out in my life currently, so of course I appreciate that you are putting your writing skills and attention to the matter. I know many horsewomen are wrestling with this. I think it’s a price we pay( not riding) for not being willing to discard unrideable horses. It’s the RIGHT thing to do, but lately it feels like punishment.

    I have reached a point I no longer give a toot about what others say about whether I ride or not. That’s an easier point to reach and inhabit when you live on some acreage with your horses and rarely encounter other people with their horses ! I once had a little fantasy that I would eventually impress those dominance-based horse women with their carrot sticks that the Affirmative way was better by showing up with my handsome, willing Zen Bear. But it’s not playing out in that way !!!! And that’s ok.

    I do enjoy all aspects of what I call “horsekeeping.” And by enjoy, I mean I find JOY. Riding isn’t a huge piece of why I have horses, but I was planning and hoping that maybe just a wee 5% of horsekeeping could involve riding. Instead, I find myself grounded. But I haven’t let go of the 5% dream yet. …..

    • The 5% is such a good way to say it. Just the cherry on top. And it seems more and more of us are trying to find that balance. Thanks, Sarah

  4. Thirty-five years ago I met an old cowboy who was looking for a riding companion. New to the area and not familiar with the local trails, I accepted his invite. For the next decade or so he proceeded to call like clockwork on my day off. Lyle was in his late sixties then, but he was retired and could ride any day of the week so I was always a little (pleasantly) surprised that he sought my company so faithfully. But he did, and with time I learned all the trails well enough to navigate them on my own whenever I wanted.

    One fall Lyle began giving his riding stuff away; a saddle here, a blanket or bridle there (he had three horses), an extra pair of western boots, his favorite roping rope. When he “gifted” his two youngest horses to good friends it still didn’t dawn on me that his riding days were dwindling. Maybe I was just in denial, but we did ride a few more times that fall before I got the call that he’d been admitted to a nearby hospital. I visited him there, feeling embarrassed that he was embarrassed for being there, at being seen so helpless and frail. The small talk centered on horses and we made plans to hit the trails at least one more time before snow came. Sadly, Lyle died a day or two later.

    Today, I’m just few years younger than Lyle was when we first met. My own riding days have dropped significantly over the last two years and while I tell myself it’s because of an ongoing construction project and a new busy puppy that arrived in May, the truth of the matter is I’m tired of riding alone. And I’m probably long past the age where it’s even smart to be miles and miles back in the woods by myself. I never saw this day coming, but now I understand why Lyle tapped me for a riding buddy all those years ago. I get it, but that doesn’t make it any easier to swallow.

  5. I have two elderly mountain mares. They are still both rideable but it doesn’t happen often. One was my husband’s horse and he died going on 4 years ago so Sal has been mostly idle. For my part, it’s not as much fun to go alone though I enjoy a jaunt here and there on Ember and truthfully, I don’t care. I like horses, I love mine, I don’t NEED to ride them to enjoy them. I enjoy the day to day care (I have them at home) and sometimes I just hang out with them. Most importantly I don’t feel the need to make excuses for not riding.

    • Sherry, thank you. I always say that if looking at a horse doesn’t take my breath away, it’s time to stop. Sounds like you have that.

  6. Ah, ‘taking your breath away’ has been my experience this week with Raymond. We got really lucky and have had some beautiful days here in Chicagoland. Walking and ‘playing with groundwork’ have been the order of the day. He’s been enjoying himself to the max. When he is happy my world is near close to perfect.
    I have to watch the clock on days like these – it’s so easy to just keep playing. But better to end early and wanting more than let things turn boring. Today was a perfect balance. Tomorrow who knows? Maybe he says, ‘nah, I’d really rather not’ -and that’s just fine.
    Would I like to ride? Yes! But I can be content staying on the ground and loving this wonderful horse. He more than accommodates my crazy ideas and I’m learning just how wise and funny a horse can be when given a voice. These gorgeous days are a gift and I’d be crazy not to accept them fully.

  7. As others have said, riding is such a small part of our communion with horses. It’s surely a wonderful part but not even the end goal, really. I remember the farm I took lessons at as a girl would let me hang around the farm after my lesson. I’d spend all day just breathing the horses in, tending to a tangled tail or cleaning tack or just sitting in the pasture watching them graze or swish flies. All those lovely hours .. I sure got my money’s worth out of those lessons ?

  8. Somewhere along the way, I lost the love of my life horse, as we all do. There were plenty of horses to ride that I loved and respected, I marvel at how fortunate I have been, they are positively dreamy to connect with and ride. But my life changed (without my permission) I got older, my mother passed away in a difficult way. I might have eaten my way through her hospice and the fracturing of the family I grew up in. I was in a few horse accidents that left me so befuddled and shook up (nasty concussion and broken wrist) that I was scared to death to get back on….and the worst accident happened simply on horse property,I was walking on a dry rubber mat, and I slipped. Why THAT scared me off riding I’ll never know. No horse was even glancing in my direction. But there I was, with a 58 year safety record of not falling while walking and breathing at the same time, yet shaking at the thought of riding. I should’ve been terrified to walk. I rolled my eyes at myself a lot. It takes what it takes. I asked a friend who generously shares her rope horses with me, to lead me around the round pen. For me, the minute my butt hit leather, all fear left. I thought, “I know this”. I felt pretty stupid. But it takes what it takes. I still ride, and pony, and occasionally get a thrill from a rope horse spook. But honestly, I’m addicted to the connection, the conversation. I hope I can graciously set myself aside long enough to connect with and maybe even help any horse that is not quite ok. This is good, as change is coming my way again. The five horses I’ve been a nanny to for years are moving far north. I’m heartbroken, and truly happy for them and my friends. It’s such a good move for them all. I do body work on other friends horses. Turns out I’m ok at this, and I like it. I miss my younger self quite a lot. But I also only vaguely recognize her. Caring for horses has always been a privilege…and I think I will have that for a good while longer…did I mention how much I hate change…? The one thing that is inevitable, is the thing I pick to be intolerant of! The irony…

    • So I guess this means we’re mortal? Ick. We talk about this at the Barn School, change is hard… and what magical lives we’ve had. Not done yet, thanks Jane.


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