Every year for New Years, for as long as I can remember, I've made only one resolution: to become a better rider in the coming year than I was in the last.
Until this year. Of course I still strive to get better, but what does being a better rider really mean anyway? After all, riding horses is a never-ending educational journey, not a destination. A year ago, I was definitely a better rider than I am now. I was teaching lessons and training at a big riding school and competitive show barn, where I had the privilege of taking staff lessons and clinics, learning from exceptional people, riding a collection of horses, and learning from my students every day. My riding was probably the best it's ever been. It was probably the best it will ever be. And I'm OK with that. Am I giving up on becoming a better rider? No. But my definition of what it means to be a better rider has changed. It used to be about jumping bigger fences, riding higher-level dressage tests, and winning more blue ribbons, always striving for but never quite reaching the top. Instead, I want to continue developing a deeper understanding of horses and our connection with them, and I want to experience a wider range of possibilities on horseback, rather than focusing on just one discipline or another.
When I was little, I wanted to ride in the Olympics. It never occurred to me that my family could never afford the kind of horses, training, and commitment it takes to reach even the outer fringes of that kind of riding. I was pretty sure my mom wouldn't let me miss that much school anyway, so I let go of that one a long time ago. Sure, I would still love to compete in the Olympics, but frankly, even if I had the opportunity, I don't think I would take it. Winning is no longer my measure of success as an equestrian. I still show horses for clients all over Colorado during the summers, and I do pretty well, but I don't really have an interest in jumping any higher, traveling any farther to show, or selling any more of my soul than I already have to the horse show world.
In college, I had a roommate who rode dressage and competed at Prix St. Georges level, owning not one but several easily six figure horses. She trained with the best of the best and at the time I would have said she was the best rider I knew. Looking back though, she and her horse excelled at one thing and one thing only; she could hardly ride him outside without him spooking at invisible monsters, let alone go one a trail ride. My friend had everything I had ever wanted - the exceptionally talented horse, he highest-caliber trainer, and time, money, and support from her family to allow her ambitions to be literally limitless - and yet, I felt sorry for her a little bit. I took her trail riding once, putting her on a lesson horse, just around the neighborhood, and it was the most exciting thing she had done in a long time, just because it was so different from her routine with her own horses. She is still training and competing and doing incredibly well, and she might even have a shot at the Olympics some day, and I'm happy and excited for her, but I know now that that's not for me, it never was.
What made this year different? I spent several months on a beautiful farm in South Africa, learning about building a better relationship with horses by literally living alongside them. The horses lived right outside the bedroom window, grazing on the greenery surrounding the farm, perched on a bluff overlooking a wide, flat pan filled with water. We took the horses camping, swimming in the lake, galloping on the beach, and spent almost every waking minute with them. We got to know the individual personalities of each horse the way we got to know the neighbors. Letting the herd run together allowed their personalities to flourish, instead of putting them in stalls. We knew who favored who, who didn't like what, and how to communicate differently with each of them.
My horse at home was boarded at the full-care facility I taught and trained at, and the extent of my time spent with him was mostly in the saddle. Our relationship was like that of a boss-to-employee. We worked together, we made a good team, but we weren't friends. When I came back from South Africa my horse and I moved to a small, private barn, and I was there every day feeding, cleaning, sometimes just observing my horse in the field with the other horses. It was like getting to know him all over again and I learned so much about his personality, but first I had had to realize that he had one, and I had underestimated the importance of acknowledging that. Of course every horse has a personality, but how do we tailor our encounters with them to suit their individual quirks? Keeping horses separate "for their safety" at a boarding stable had hindered my horse's individualism, not to mention his happiness. That isn't to say that living in a stall is a terrible existence; it suits some horses just fine. But I had to get to know my horse better to realize it was not for him, and he's been a different horse ever since. Everything he continues to teach me, I am able to pass on to my wonderful students.
For me the measure of a great rider is their ability to share their knowledge, passion, and experience with others. My other greatest passion in life is travel, so creating Equescapes to combine travel and horses and share my passion with others has been the greatest leap forward my riding has taken in a long time, even if it means I'm less polished in the arena than I once was. So many riders focus unilaterally on one discipline, one goal, and so much of it takes place in the arena; I want to encourage others this year to resolve to broaden my horizons by seeking experiences that are out of the ordinary, sometimes extraordinary, and even if it doesn't make you a better rider in the traditional sense, it will feed your soul and lift your heart.