Eating Dirt (Guest Post)

In my last guest post I let this community know about my love of horseback riding. I talked a lot about how magic the animals themselves were and how they’ve been an important part of my life journey.

Yesterday, while in our lesson I saw the following scene unfold:

A little girl (about 9) on a little pony approached a vertical jump just over 2′. Her approach was spot on and over they went. The little pony was super excited about that and she dropped her head and gave a little buck right after, as little ponies do. The little girl popped off the little pony over her shoulder, face first in the dirt.

The instructor responded as she should, child first, pony second. The pony responded as she should, going to check if her rider was okay (“Oops sorry, did I make you do that?”). The little girl said ow and sat on the ground for a minute. Then she got up, adjusted herself and got back up on the pony with a face full of dirt and no tears.

I watched this and thought to myself that I was seeing something significant. Riding at this level (school  barn) is about 99% girls and young women. We have all been where that little girl was at some point and more than once. We likely all will be again. It is a risky sport. And yet, it’s just so acceptable to be rough and tumble in this environment.

As the little girls of the barn grow into teens and young women, many of them start to volunteer or work there to offset the high cost of being in love with horses. Working at a barn entails, shoveling poo, hauling heavy things, getting stuck in mud, and pushing around an animal that can be over a thousand pounds. While flying over jumps or dealing with surprise raccoons (I swear that raccoons say “boo” to the horses on purpose), there remains the constant possibility of getting dumped in dirt, dirt that has poo in it.

In the rest of their lives, these girls are doing other girl things. They are texting people they like and gossiping. They are struggling with the norms this world has set out for them. However, they do all this in the context of not being afraid to be covered in dirt. It apparently doesn’t undermine their identity as girls and young women (the version or gendered expression of “girl” is very diverse at a barn). The expectations in the barn are to do hard work and get filthy while doing it. They literally know how to handle the shit.

When I watched that kid get back on her pony while her mom casually strolled into the arena to check on her (mom also rides), I felt so much pride for her. It wasn’t because she didn’t cry. It was because she didn’t have to cry. Falling off a horse into poo infiltrated dirt was somewhat painful, but not overwhelmingly horrible. What a gift to have so much containment in the activity and your own confidence, that your first thought after recovering your senses was to get back on that silly little pony.

This sense of confidence and containment isn’t unique to riding. I think it can come with many sports. Riding is the only one, however, that always comes with a side of poo.


10 thoughts on “Eating Dirt (Guest Post)

  1. I love this reflection on the qualities of confidence and containment that come from engaging in sports. We hear a lot about confidence but not nearly as much about containment– that focus that gets us right back at it after some sort of so-called setback. This is also a fantastic comment on gender. We (the society “we”) don’t expect containment from girls. They’re expected to fall apart. But landing face down in the dirt and poo, getting up and jumping back on the pony–that’s a great quality for girls to carry into their lives. We need it.
    Thanks for a great post.

  2. Yes! When my school barn insisted I sign a waiver acknowledging I was participating in an extreme sport, my reaction was “awesome!”. Suddenly my daughter’s chosen sport went from girly to being every bit as cool as what her brother did. We now board our horse at a co-op barn where we haul a lot of hay, shavings, and poop. The only spoiled princesses are the horses. Tears are rare, despite injured shoulders, bleeding lips, and hours of trying to catch animals in the cold and rain.

  3. Thanks so much — love your writing. This one brought back memories of an early teen ride when my huge horse bucked and I went sliding down his back onto the ground — and laughed and laughed. What fun that was!

  4. Thank you so much for this and your other riding article — playing into my hope of taking it back up for the first time since I was a teenager. I’m wondering if you have any suggestions about finding a place for lessons that you liked?

    1. Hi Mara, Depends where you live. I’m outside of Toronto, Ontario. I think the best idea is to look around for a barn that is local to you and go check it out. If you like the vibe, ride there. The most important things in my book are that the horses are taken care of and a connection with the instructor. There is a good chance that I will blog about connections with instructors next month. Good luck with your search!

    2. Oh and also? Don’t neglect your core strength training before and during your restart. When you were a teen you were stronger and more resilient. I was rudely shocked at how hard it was to recondition. I had a lot of chronic issues act up in my back an hip. I had to start other training to mitigate. I suggest Pilates, but that’s just my thing. Whatever works.

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