This is Not the Sport I Signed Up For: Riding through Shadows in the Horse Industry

Photo © Sara Shier

BY SARA ZIMMERMAN

This is not the sport I signed up for.

These words swirl around and around in my head, keeping time with the barely audible footsteps of my evening walk that I am only going on in a misguided attempt to ward off the Sunday scaries. We all know the type – the movement you hope will quiet your soul and sort your confusion, but that only ends up compounding it.

After my walk, I sat on the couch idly scrolling through social media. A post about a friend who recently sold a horse caught my eye. I texted her and her mom to wish them congratulations, and immediately got a response back.

“We didn’t sign a contract or transfer ownership,” she said. “I’m not sure how much commission the broker took. Do you think that’s a big deal?”

“I’m sure it’s ok,” I reply, while rolling my eyes and mentally logging the thousands of reasons why it’s not. Call me naïve, but every day I find myself more and more surprised by what the horse world holds.

This is not the sport I signed up for.

Earlier this week, I found myself fighting through a forest of paper tigers for a cause that wasn’t even my own. It turns out everyone has something to say when it has nothing to do with themselves. Judgments and caustic remarks; quick fingers and even quicker computer-masked tongues slicing and dicing without regard. Let those who live in glass houses cast the first stone, or so the saying goes.

Photo © Sara Shier

Perhaps we should re-write for the horse world, I think to myself. Let those equestrian armchair quarterbacks be taken down by the gravitas of their collective experience, or lack thereof. In a context where our voluntarily participatory sport is nothing but subjective, it becomes objectively clearer with each passing moment that the community everyone professes to hold so dear is anything but. Call me naïve, but every day I find myself more and more surprised by what the horse world holds.

This is not the sport I signed up for.

Last month, I turned 30. I thought by now I would have it all figured out, but the only thing I have figured out is that age does not make one wiser. Some things have changed, as they always do: I have the horse of a lifetime who won’t stop bucking me off; I’ve found a trainer who I love and respect but I can’t seem to listen to when she tells me to stop pulling.

By now, I’ve felt the elation that comes from hearing your name announced as the owner and rider at a show, all the while knowing that my horse is better taken care of than I ever will be. What I haven’t quite figured out is what keeps me, and countless others, coming back each day to try again when this sport has morphed into the unimaginable. Call me naïve, but every day I find myself more and more surprised by the malice, cheating and corruption hiding under blue ribbons.  

This is not the sport I signed up for.

Photo © Sara Shier

Riding is infinitely more and painstakingly less than I could have ever imagined. It exceeds every dream and goal I ever set for myself, while simultaneously breaking my heart. This sport has taken everything I have ever known to be true, put it through the washing machine, and somehow managed to turn ten pairs of standing bandages into an insurmountable knot. It’s the same, but different.

Each time I walk to my gelding’s stall, I get a jolt knowing that I earned this. He’s mine. Each time I have a frustrating ride and swear off jumping altogether, I try and remember why I started. It’s not always easy. Each time I contemplate quitting, I find myself remembering why I started.

I started for the tiny sliver of a moment when I call my horse’s name, and he nickers back.

I started for making it around a course that I thought I never could.

Started for the pinpricks of brightness horses have brought me in the midst of my blackest hours, when the return of light felt far from a given.

For the feeling I get when sitting on a tack trunk at the end of a grueling show day, watching the sun go down, and knowing that I get to do it all over again the next day.

To become a part of something, while never expecting it would become a part of me. So deeply ingrained in my psyche, that I can’t always remember why I keep coming back to the barn. It’s like trying to remember why you are human. We just are.

Photo © Sara Shier

Call me naïve, but every day I find myself more and more surprised by what the horse world holds. Mixed between everything, even the parts that get me down, there is so much good. I come back and focus on the reason for it all, horse and the love of the sport, and feel myself steady again.

This – this – this is the sport I signed up for.  


Sara Zimmerman has lived in Southern California for over a decade, but still considers herself a Northern Californian. She takes great pride in being “that adult amateur” who runs out to the barn during her lunch hour just to give her horse a kiss.