Starting horse riding as an adult

Hi guys, this is Jordyn again, guest post writer for Hooves Around The World. Starting to get into something new isn't easy - especially as an adult. The reasons are different for everyone, you might be physically limited by being unfit or maybe you're lazy or, like me, embarrassed when you're bad at things (although to be honest I’m a little unfit and lazy too!). It's even more difficult when you get into something that most people start doing when they're kids. For me dancing, instruments and singing are all very embarrassing since I'm pretty bad at it. Horse riding is the most recent, embarrassing, interest that I'm learning about and it is not easy as an adult.

I haven't done any lessons and have only been learning through trail rides and having friends help me out. It’s been a bit of a cowboy’s way of learning to ride. This get-on-and-go approach is great for learning to be more sensitive, improving your balance in a short amount of time, learning to respect how amazing horses are and of course being humbled by the fact that it is (much) harder than it looks. Having never done any kind of horse sport or had any friends who did riding growing up it blew my mind trying to learn about different riding styles and then learning that western and English riding each have different sports and different breeds and different equipment. If you've learnt all of that, there's also training methods to study, first aid, anatomy and feeds. It's a lot of information to take in at once! It helps a lot to start with the basics of not being scared and being able to stay on. I was terrified of horses when I was a teenager after a bad fall on a tar road when my horse took off on a holiday trail ride. I had no idea what I was doing, could barely stay on in a trot and when my horse bolted I lost balance and ate dirt. I was a complete beginner and didn’t even know that horses could possibly bolt. I had no control and no idea what was going on and, instead of just learning more about horses, I just mistrusted and feared them. I was a kid and I didn’t know there was more to know. I did a few beginners trails (and had horses bolt on me two or three times again) and was at a loss for why me and horses just never seemed to click. I was really lucky to have the opportunity to learn a bit more about horses and stop being so scared of them all the time. I did beginner's trails and ended up volunteering at, and eventually working on a horse farm in the Drakensberg of South Africa. For a lot of people (and for me) the fear of riding horses comes from the unknown. Not being able to tell if the horse you're riding is responsive, if you can control it, if you can keep your balance or what emotion the horse is displaying. After doing beginner's rides for a while it helped a lot to at least become curious about horses. Once I was curious I could start approaching them with less fear. A big help in not being so afraid all the time was learning that horses aren't predators and that they do, in fact, have and display emotions was a huge help. After that just spending time around them helped a lot. I started to find out that they're intelligent and inherently kind. If you treat them gently and kindly they'll be the same! 

Horse riding in a pine forest in the Drakensberg of South Africa
Jordyn riding in the Drakensberg

Also read: Horse riding in the Drakensberg

I was able to stay where there where lots of horses and so I got to meet tons of horses and learn to recognise them (by far the most difficult thing to learn for me!). I also got to learn their personalities and trust my favourites. Being able to spend lots of time with the same horses really helped me to develop a slow and deep connection that I had never had doing short trips with different horses. I think if I had had my own horse I would’ve been able to experience connecting with a horse a lot faster, but I don’t think I’d appreciate it as much. Meeting and riding a lot of different horses made me realise how special it is to really get along with and love a new horse. I think it’s helped me improve my riding quite a bit too. Despite having ridden lots of different horses, I still had only ever ridden Basotho Ponies. They're a gentle, relaxed breed that looks dainty but is built for extreme weather and rough terrain. They have a very long stride and some purebred Basotho Ponies have an extra, incredibly comfortable, gait similar to the Icelandic Horse's tölt. It's a very cool feeling riding like this since it's incredibly smooth! There is one big downside to learning to ride a horse that's so easy to balance - when I tried riding a warm-blooded, bouncy Arab horse for the first time my balance was really really bad. I also found it weirdly difficult to read their emotions since I had gotten so used to the horses back home. I was holding onto the saddle, not able to feel when my horse was about to speed up or move in a certain direction and just being confused in general. I was a bit in over my head and missed the calm mountain ponies I had fallen in love with. This, of course changed once I got the hang of trotting, cantering and eventually galloping. Side note: this isn’t meant to imply that I’m now good at it! The first time galloping was a bit more scary than fun to be honest, though (after that it was epic!). After a while I could just let my horse go and enjoy the wind in my hair, which was really freeing. Since I'm not the most trusting person, it's been quite difficult for me to learn to give up control when I'm riding. This really made being able to let my horse go in a gallop super special.

Galloping a horse in the desert of Luxor
Jordyn galopping!

Also read: Jordyn's experience horse riding in Egypt

I was riding with one of my friends, after just having taken a big step with learning how to communicate with my horse, I had started controlling every step my horse took. I started doing this as practice, but had gotten a little bit too comfortable with the control. My friend noticed and gave me some really good advice after pointing out what I was doing and how it was a bad idea. Horses are intuitive and know what they're doing - you can ask a horse where to go and it'll agree if you ask it with enough conviction, but if your horse really wants to do something else it will. This was one of the most difficult things I had to wrap my head around so far, and one of the most rewarding. Understanding, not just knowing, but really understanding that horses are intelligent and, in a lot of ways, know better than you, for me, was the best way to learn to trust. It was what really helped me take that step towards trusting the horse I'm riding. I’m not at a place where I can immediately trust any horse I meet and ride, since it does take time to understand a horse's personality, training and habits. Once you understand a horse, you know how to treat it and can trust it. For me, where my riding level is at, that’s what being around horses is all about and why I wanted to and will continue to want to ride and learn about horses. Developing a deep connection based on love, respect and curiosity is the reward for a bit of patience and effort; considering how many people spend their free time searching for a connection I’d say it’s easy to see why it’s so worth it! 

Horse riders in the Drakensberg of South Africa
Myself and Jordyn riding in South Africa

Another hurdle I had to overcome was the overwhelming guilt I had from riding in the beginning. Riding to me was just using an animal for my own selfish gain. I felt terrible every time I rode and I was barely able to control my horse since there was no intention behind my half-hearted and overly gentle requests. I was trying to figure out why so many people who loved horses continued to ride and I think this curiosity was why I carried on riding - I justified it by doing everything I could to avoid abusing any horses I rode. I grew up in quite a hippy community and a part of me still believes that a lot of animals and plants are susceptible to the emotions and ‘vibe’ that you put out. I think it was this part of me that tried sending subliminal messages to the horses I rode to let them know that they don’t need to be afraid of me and that I won’t hurt them. I was so focused on me and how I seemed towards the horse that I didn’t notice anything they did. Trying so hard to be a certain way around horses stopped me from being able to see what they were doing or trying to say. I was subconsciously likening them to a plant, thinking that everything the horse did was determined by me. I had assumed that training a horse meant that you were forcing a horse into submission and that they were just too scared to not do what you said. After shadowing a trainer (a great one at that!) I found out that training is sort of like teaching a horse a new language. If I say this, it means this. There’s no pain involved. You’re proving that you have no ill intentions and finding out that the horse doesn’t either. And after you have a few good “conversations” they let you ride them - trusting that you don’t have any ill intentions and will keep them safe and you need to do the same.

Young horses in training in South Africa
Jordyn riding a newly backed horse in South Africa!

All these realisations about the guilt I felt and the lack of knowledge and conviction I had was a complete mirror of flaws in personality. Insecurity, frustration, arrogance and ignorance. These are all traits I’ve battled with my whole life and now, learning about horses, I was finally able to see it and just how much it affects my life. Horses are a perfect mirror! It’s been so strange to me learning these things about myself against my will. I am a bit of an avoidant person by nature and so being confronted by it and needing to fix it (or else never improve my riding) I was finally given not only a method for self awareness, but a way to practice being a better person. Patiently trying to understand what a horse is trying to tell you, having to admit that you have no idea what you’re doing when you inevitably make a mistake and being confident no matter what really helped me grow from the shy and arrogant person I was just a few years ago. Of course I’m not saying being around horses was a magic cure for all my fatal flaws and that I’m a great rider now. It’s just been a really useful way to find out more about myself by being vulnerable. I also tend to use pretty flowery words to express things and my body language suffered a bit because of it. I stand quite far away from people and am not very comfortable being touched. Since horses can’t speak you have to learn to communicate through actions and this I think especially helps you come out of your shell and realise how much your body reflects your state of mind. Becoming more physically expressive is great for so many reasons and, for me, the best is being able to connect with other people. It’s also made it easier to be around other animals. Knowing that your body language affects their behaviour was a big skill to develop for me. 

Never having had the farm or wildlife experiences as a kid it’s been amazing being able to grow myself in a completely new area. And it’s also just great to have fun and let go! There’s also a huge community of people who love whatever kind of horse riding you do that you can meet and be friends with (it is not easy making friends as an adult!).

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