by Diane Harper
I started riding as a survival mechanism when my daughter was young and I had to sit in an unheated arena watching her lessons. By January of the first year, I decided it had to be warmer on a horse, so I started taking lessons with her. It turned out to be a wonderful mother-daughter bonding time. We rode together in various classes for years. She loved (and continues to love) jumping, while I adored dressage. We made friends we still keep in touch with – former classmates, coaches, and people we met while volunteering at events. I learned to ride a variety of horses, each one of whom taught me new things. Horses, just like people, have stronger and weaker sides, are more or less flexible, and have good and bad days. I learned to be aware of how each horse was different – every single day – and how to adjust in order to get as much as possible from every ride.
As my daughter grew up, she struggled with some mental health challenges; horses provided a place where she could get exercise, fresh air, be responsible for a large non-judgemental animal who relied on her, and build confidence as she used her relatively tiny body to guide a 2,000 lb animal with its own ideas. This was a form of balance I had never previously considered. All those sappy books and movies about young girls and their horses suddenly made sense. But teenaged girls aren’t the only ones who et something from being around horses. Kids and adults with physical and mental disabilities, as well as parolees and people dealing with addictions all benefit from equine therapy.
Eventually, my daughter’s love of horses led to us acquiring Fancy. She did all the research, took me to see horses for sale throughout the Ottawa Valley and Western Quebec, and even to southern Ontario. We settled on an off-the-track thoroughbred who knew her paces, but was a bit older than we wanted, needed some TLC, and turned out to hate being indoors for more than the time it takes to groom and saddle her. She does remarkably well living outdoors year-round at a boarding farm where she has her own little her of mares, a large shelter, and people who feed her grain every day and ensure she has constant access to water and hay or pasture. It makes horse ownership manageable since we live in the city and can’t get out to ride or visit every single day.
Fancy has been healthy, but she is now almost 19 years old and has a bit of arthritis in her hind legs. I am fat and I need a much stronger core. I have had foot surgery and a broken arm, both of which kept me out of the saddle for months. Even after being cleared to ride, I had old injuries and tight muscles so I constantly struggle to find the centre of my saddle, keep my weight evenly distributed in my stirrups, and have my spine and shoulders straight but flexible. Fancy is a very honest horse; if I don’t get things right, she adjusts her body to compensate. Her head up, tiny steps, or crooked body and neck are all signs I need to correct my position. When she races or refuses to listen, I know it is time to engage my core muscles so I can use my seat more effectively to tell her what I want her to do. When I get the adjustment right, I can see (or feel) an immediate change. She will stretch her neck down to engage her back muscles, step more freely with a bit of sway in her bum, and bend or go perfectly straight, as required. My daughter and I balance our time and Fancy’s training. She jumps and canters during her rides; I do circles, loops and other bending exercises to ensure Fancy is as flexible and balanced as possible, focusing on walk and trot. It turns out that horses also have a preference for one side. Fancy’s strongest and least flexible side is the same as my weakest side, so I really need to work my weak muscles to get her to bend.
With the arrival of COVID, lessons with my coach were cancelled, and have been put on hold again with the latest lockdown. I’m really happy that I have finally reached a level in my own fitness and understanding that I am comfortable riding Fancy on my own and know how to adjust my riding based on what she is telling me. I will never be a brilliant dressage rider, but I being confident, safe, and able to use my imagination as I pretend to be in the Grand Prix ring feels pretty good.
Diane Harper works for the federal government in Ottawa. She loves to break the stereotype of the stodgy bureaucrat by trying new things and pushing limits as often as possible.