A Return To Horses



Cowgirl Horses

There is something absolutely magical that little girls feel about horses…and big girls, too.  For the past ten years, I have primarily given horsemanship/riding lessons to—and trained horses for—women who are re-kindling their desire to be with horses after a long absence, or fulfilling a childhood dream to own a horse of their own.  While the stereotypical cowgirl may be the rhinestone-clad gal whipping around barrels in a summer rodeo or the tough-as-nails rancher, the truth is that “second-time around,” forty-plus-year-old women make up the majority of modern cowgirls.

According to surveys like the 2012 Equine Industry Survey conducted by the American Horse Publications (AHP) and prepared by Jill Stowe, PhD Dept. of Agricultural Economics (University of Kentucky), the 45+ age demographic represents 61.2% of people actively participating with horses. Another tidbit gleaned from these surveys: 90.8% of those 45+ horsemen are actually horsewomen.

As a youngster, you may have had your own horse, known a friend with one, took some lessons, went on a trail ride, or just harbored the fantasy of horse ownership, quite possibly inspired by some of the classic horse movies of the time:  “The Black Stallion,” “National Velvet,” or “Black Beauty.”  In whatever way we connected to horses in our early years, that magic–that call that horses have to us cowgirls–has never let us go. However, we have matured, and our bodies have changed. What horses mean to us, and the way we handle them, has become significantly different.  Even the ideas and realities of what makes for good horsemanship have transformed in the last decades into an entirely new and extraordinary world!

But let’s stay with the childhood experiences for a bit.   Jessica, a client of mine, originally from Twin Falls, Idaho, fits into that 61.2% demographic (in fact all the women that I mention in this article do).  She recalls that at 11 years old, “Riding was just getting up on the horse’s back and going!  I never had a lesson, there was no formal training, and in retrospect, we really did not have great control or connection with our horses.  It was not very safe, but it was the highlight of my childhood!”  Back then Jessica never owned a horse, but had latched on to some neighbors that did, and had earned privileges to ride them.

I myself was fortunate to have had my own horse at the age of nine, and be part of a small gang of girls who rode our horses daily. None of us however, just like Jessica, ever had a formal lesson or knew much about any kind of horsemanship.  Our agile young bodies allowed us to hang onto our horses in almost any situation, and when our clinging powers gave out, they instantly converted to the supernatural ability of bouncing (not breaking).  Back then, our fearless minds had no doubts about climbing right back on. If my parents had been witness to the incredibly risky things our little unsupervised group did as we traversed the turf upon our steeds, our riding privileges would have been revoked, and our horses immediately re-homed.

We didn’t realize at the time that these early experiences would be life changing, and entertaining, to say the least.  The horses meant much more to us than just a toy or bicycle, if I dare even compare the two (we did realize they were living beings, and we all had a definite love for all animals, especially equines), but our young minds did take for granted that they were a kind of fur-coated means for our enjoyment.  As Jessica shared with me “When we looked at a horse, we just assumed we were supposed to be up on its back, riding.  Like the horse’s specific purpose in being there was for us to have fun on.  We just took from the horse, never really giving a thought to his experience.”

Years have passed, and for various reasons—left behind with our childhood—were those incredible times with horses that had been such a huge part of our early years.   Life does have its way of changing our priorities.  Nicole, originally from the Palm Springs area of California, was into two sports when she was 6 years old, and was pressured by her parents to choose only one.  Regretting that she chose figure skating over her passion for riding, she admits she never lost her “horse obsession,” but did eventually lose her desire for skating.

Jessica’s horse-owning neighbors moved away, and she recalls that she began to feel increased pressure to do well in school, and prepare herself for college. So her connection with horses dissolved, but even so, she never lost the desire to have a horse of her own.

Like many a lucky preteen and teenage girl, I rode nearly daily until the last few years of high school, when the changes of adolescence really took effect, and I, like many other young cowgirls, got distracted by the opposite sex! Leaving home to go off to college often sealed the deal, and our life with horses came to an end.

But this isn’t a tale of love lost forever.   On the positive side, during the years that we missed not having horses in our lives, we matured.  Most horsewomen today are focused on, and geared up for, a different kind of relationship with our horses.   Human beings seem to be evolving out of an era where we acted predominantly from our predatory nature, where our focus has been on force, control, and get it NOW!   A perfect example of this kinder, gentler horsemanship is the way we were shown, 30+ years ago, to deal with a “girthy” horse (an animal that bloats out his belly as you tighten the cinch, so that when you think you have that saddle all snug and secure, he lets the air out, relieving himself of the pressure and cleverly leaving the cinch hanging loosely under him).  I know that I was personally shown to just kick that horse in the gut and force him to let out that air to solve the issue, something I would NEVER consider doing today, or teach anyone to do.  My objective is to always work WITH the horse, not against him.  I accept that a horse will “bloat” his belly, so I carefully adjust the girth in 3 distinct and separate stages, by the time I am done with my ground work, and ready to mount up, I have a snug girth, and a horse that can trust me and count on my concern for his comfort and well-being.

In a recent interview with Regina Reilly, M.S., Educational Psychology, a psychotherapist in private practice since 1979 (and a horse owner herself), she states that she sees the horse as a teacher, an animal that is in touch with its instinctual nature, something that we (especially as women) long to get back in touch with.  Therefore we are deeply drawn to them for spiritual and personal growth reasons, some of which we may not even be completely conscious of.

I completely agree with Ms. Reilly. Horses DO have quite a bit to teach us.  Being a prey animal, horses are much more observant, cautious and instinctively programmed to keep themselves alive (by keeping away from predators—which, ironically, humans are.  This makes it especially important for us to become conscious of our predatory tendencies, so that our work with horses is based more on trust and partnership rather than fear and pain).

I also agree with Ms. Reilly that not only do we want to be around horses just because we love them, but we are longing to reclaim that wild, instinctual, free nature.  This part of ourselves, that we have fallen out of touch with—our instinctive, emotional and intuitive side—is what I call in my business, our “Inner Wild.”  In fact, being disconnected from this aspect of ourselves tends to make us confused, depressed and in many ways, numb.  I strongly believe that this is one of the reasons that we, as a culture, often need intoxicating amounts of stimulation to feel something…in some cases, feel anything!  

I have met countless women who are not just wanting instruction in horsemanship, but almost more passionately, they express a desire to be around the “healing nature” of the horse.   I believe this is exactly what Regina Reilly is speaking about.  

I spoke with Jessica, Nicole and another woman,  Adrianna, from Cool, California (yes, there is such a town!), about how their relationships with horses have changed since childhood.  All agreed that it is tremendously different now.   Jessica laughs, a bit embarrassed that she cannot even ride the two horses she currently owns because 1) they are a bit too much horse for her skill level and 2) she is much more aware that she can possibly get hurt, and there is so much more at stake now!  Unlike just jumping on a horse’s back like she did as a kid (in fact she wondered how she ever got the horses that she rode back then to do anything she wanted), she considers her involvement with horses now much more of an endeavor.   She has sought out help to train her horses, and is considering purchasing a mount more suitable to her skill level.  She’s also wanting to learn as much as she can, filling in the missing pieces of knowledge, and wisdom that were never put together in those early years. The goal now is to develop a deeper connection with these magnificent animals.  “It has been very emotional, and not all positive, “she says,”  Like so many things in life, you have to reconcile your expectations with reality and make adjustments.”

Nicole expresses remorse at having given up horses for skating, admitting that now that she has a horse of her own, “There is so much I don’t know!   The horses I rode as a kid were pretty bomb-proof lesson horses that just went around an arena, so my skill and knowledge level really needs tending to!”  Nicole also realizes that there was not much to fear with the extremely docile horses she rode as a kid, and knows now how quickly things can go south.  Like Jessica, she has much more to risk now, at her more mature age.  Nicole made it very clear to me, that she, like Jessica, realizes her desired connection with horses is going to be much more of an undertaking.   “ I am making it a point to spend as much time at the barn as I can, making use of as many resources [I can] that resound with my own beliefs and ideals with regards to horsemanship.” Nicole goes on to say that,  “being with horses is not a half-baked thing you do, you have to be really dedicated to achieve the skill and harmonious relationship that I believe most of us, and certainly I, want now!”

Adrianna was eight years old when she had earned enough money to go out and buy her own four-year-old green broke buckskin mare, also never having any lessons.   She rode bareback for years, swimming the mare and jumping over ditches without ever a thought, or a mishap.  But now, at 69, she has much more respect for horses, especially the animals she owns now.   “When I was younger, I just didn’t think I could get hurt!,” she told me.  It has only been in the past three years that she finally decided she could benefit by some riding lessons, realizing that she knew nothing about using her body correctly, giving leg aides or anything about collection.  “My poor horses!” she exclaimed,  “They did well in spite of me, not because of me.”

commonality between all three seasoned Cowgirls is the admission that because their bodies have changed and aged, there is a greater risk of injury.  As I mentioned earlier about my own childhood horse posse: we bounced then, now we are more likely to break!  And there are other concerns as well.  When she got back into horses, Nicole’s weight had risen to nearly 200 pounds, and she was hesitant to tell me that she could not even get on a horse by herself, let alone feel as though she had any balance in the saddle.  After having lost 30 pounds, she can mount unaided, feels much better, and is more “in touch” with her body.  Still, she struggles with finding balance in the saddle, and when I asked if she knew what muscle groups might be most important to work on to help with that, she admitted that she did not.  “But that is just one more reason I know I have so much to learn!” she remarked.

Jessica learned first hand the importance of fitness. She knew that core strength is one of the keys to better balance, and felt that a good stretching regimen was also critically important to keep her more supple and safe.  Jessica has managed to keep a slender, athletic figure as she has aged, and after recently trying out a “bad” horse that would balk and rear, she knew that it was her fitness level that made it easy for her to just jump off and keep herself safe.  She was acutely aware that if she was out of shape, and not as limber, she could very well have lost control in this type of situation and fallen, rather than nimbly removing herself from the petulant pony.

If you are considering joining the ranks of the fastest growing Cowgirl demographic—or already are a “re-entry” horse owner, there are three major points to keep in mind:

Your values and reasons for being with horses may have changed. What was once a great source of fun and excitement may be something that is calling to you now on a more spiritual level; part of the magic of mid-life horsewomanship is seeking a deeper connection with ourselves and with our equine partners.   Take care in finding teachers/trainers and or riding instructors whose values match up with your own.  I always advise those looking for help to first observe several different trainers working and teaching—and keep looking until you find someone that you “click” with. Be sure you are comfortable with their methods.

It is possible that your horsemanship skills and knowledge about horses in general may need a makeover!  In general, I come across two types of gals who get back into horses after a long hiatus.  The first type assumes that because they rode when they were young, they are still an expert. I used to hear this all the time when I booked guests for my guided horseback tours at Skyline Park in the beautiful Napa Valley.   It was always those folks who told me over the phone that they needed a “spirited” horse, due to the fact that they considered themselves “experienced,” that I was most wary.  I knew they would likely not listen to my instructions when they came for their ride, and I knew my horses would have the hardest time with them.  I’m sorry to say I was nearly always right.  Are you one of those cowgirls who already knows everything? While this kind of swagger may indicate a healthy self-confidence, it can also make it hard to open up about challenges, learn new techniques, and actually better yourself and your horsemanship.   The second type of cowgirl is the woman who knows things have changed: her body, her skills, and the very environment of horsemanship.   These gals are eager and ready to take on the new challenge, even though there may be some bumps in the road and some hard work to do!  This cowgirl is okay with finding help, and learning all she can!  Remember, if you are looking for coaching, take the time to find a trainer and observe them; you should genuinely feel good about how they handle horses, and people too!  Trust your intuition!

While modern expectations of aging have become significantly more limitless, the reality is our bodies may need a little tending to.   Let’s face it, the years may have caught up with us, or we may become a bit careless with our exercise regime or our diets. All of the women I interviewed for this article (and myself included!)agree that horse handling, horsemanship in general, and horseback riding, are truly athletic endeavors, requiring us to be reasonably fit and agile bodied.   We expect our horse’s body to function well, be in good shape, and in some cases perform very athletically, so in all fairness, we should expect the same of ourselves. Strength and flexibility is priceless for safety reasons (remember Jessica’s ability to dismount quickly from an ill behaving horse rather than falling off?).  But remember, change does not happen overnight.  Be compassionate with yourself, set reasonable goals and try to find something to help you get in shape that is also fun.  I always suggest belly-dancing classes as a fun and exotic way to learn to use your core muscles and isolate your pelvis (which is critical for more refined riding).  Yoga, stretching and some sort of aerobic work (even if it is just vigorous walking!) are also highly recommended.

Can our adventures as cowgirls be just as magical in our second go-round?  Absolutely!  We are now bringing more maturity and personal depth to the arena and the trail, along with our sensitivity as women with more life experience.   With true desire, determination, and the willingness to seek out great help when needed, anything is possible!  In my forties and beyond, I have dedicated myself to developing the skills and understanding that lead to fulfilling, peaceful, masterful horsemanship.  Never in my youth did I experience the true partnership that I do now with my horses.  And riding?  It’s more magical than ever!  When I feel my own balance and body meld into the horse, and his into mine, it feels as if we are no longer two beings, but one beautiful, graceful Centaur.   This is truly mythical magic. o

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