It’s easy to overlook how much we learn from horses every day. I’ve been riding my whole life, and still have a new takeaway from every lesson. While the mechanics and nuances are the things we tend to notice the most, it’s the less obvious life lessons that stay with us the longest and have the biggest impact.
As a lifelong equestrian, these teachings might feel like second nature, but they’re the really important stuff. They’re the reasons we tell all the future Pony Moms and Dads out there, hesitant to get their kid a first pony, that yes this hobby is incredibly expensive and time consuming. But it’s also an investment in your child’s future. It’s a path to learn invaluable life lessons.
Horses teach us confidence. They are herd animals, and every herd has a leader. If you don’t provide the leadership, your horse will. I am sure every one of us can recall a moment when a typically kind lesson horse dragged some poor, unsuspecting kid to the grass for the millionth time until the kid finally realized enough is enough. They found the confidence to tell the horse to knock it off, and the horse listened. Imagine the impact that kind of interaction can have on a timid kid, to realize they have the power to control 1,000 pounds of (stubborn) horse. Those kind of moments build leadership skills. By the time your pony kid enters the work force, they will be prepared to take on a leadership role in whatever job they chose. Years of working with horses will have prepared them to be a kind leader and recognize when to stand up and assert themselves.
Horses are also gifted at teaching us how to communicate. They don’t speak our language, so they base their translations off our body language. They hear our tone, and see our actions. Keeping our shoulders back, head tall, and voice strong communicates assertive, but not aggressive, confidence. When a horse is nervous, we can change our body language to eyes shifted down, soft voice, and slow movement. Speaking with them isn’t about words, but meaning what you say with every part of your body and demeanor.
Many adults have a hard time identifying and maintaining their personal boundaries. I mean, haven’t we all felt like a doormat from time to time? But our horses show us their boundaries every time we are around them, and teach us to communicate ours. My pony is a licker. He licks me the whole time I am grooming and tacking up. One day last week, he got a little overzealous and nipped my shirt. I turned fast and used a loud voice, and he immediately knew he had crossed my boundary. Anyone who has lunged a horse has seen the effect of a physical (yet invisible) boundary we convey with our body language. We send them out to work by focusing our eyes and body towards their hind end. When we are ready to change the boundary and allow them to come in to us, we move our attention to their head. Our eyes create a shifting boundary that the horse respects. How many teenagers could benefit from not only knowing what their personal boundaries are, but also having the confidence to hold those limits tightly and confidently? Far more than the ones who ride, but the horse girls have a baseline built in the barn.
One of the hardest things for everyone to learn is to put down the walls we build, and allow ourselves to be our true, authentic self. Being vulnerable and giving up control goes against all of our instincts (for both us, and the horse), but it’s also the only way for true learning to occur. You see, your horse doesn’t understand how to pretend to be anyone other than himself. In order to earn his trust, you have to be genuine or he will see right through you.
Your horse does not care who you are outside of the barn. They do not care how much money you have. They don’t know if you’re popular at school, or up for a promotion at work. Because of this, they can give us honest and real time feedback on the version of ourselves you’re trying to project. If they feel you’re hiding, they cannot put their trust in you. I still get nervous when I show, and even though I try my hardest to conceal my nerves, my pony picks up on it through the tightness in my seat or the stiffness in my arms. I can almost convince myself I am fine, but he can feel the truth. When I give in to his feedback and allow myself to take a couple deep breaths, we can both relax and deal with the task at hand.
In order to be authentic, it is crucial to be present and mindful of what you are doing right now. Horses are not worried about yesterday, or tomorrow. They are focused on the moment. In such a fast-paced world with so much importance on being “busy,” one of my favorite things about the horses is the necessity of stopping, taking a breath, and thinking. On the off chance you are not being present, like focusing on something that happened earlier or getting frustrated about things not going the way you hoped, your horse will be the first to pick up on that. It’s amazing how the most even-tempered horse will become unmanageable if you are angry or upset. Both kids and adults learn quickly that you have to manage your emotions in order to make progress. Horses mirror the energy we put out. Life happens so fast that it really is a gift to be reminded to focus on what is important in the here and now, and to stay calm and appreciate it.
Life with horses is nothing if not a test of sheer determination and patience. The adage, “Want to make God laugh, tell him your plans” holds very much true at the barn. Rarely does anything happen according to your timeline. Injuries, emotional baggage, and lack of communication all work against us as we try to accomplish our goals. There is no room for “I want it now.” Training, be it for the person or a young horse, takes time. There will be set-backs. There will be utter and complete failures. There will be moments where you question your sanity and want to quit. It’s the love for our horse, and our commitment to see it through (and perhaps a little bit of just plain stubbornness, mixed with a little crazy) that keeps us from bailing when the going gets tough. More than anything else, I hope this perseverance is what my pony kid holds onto, both in life and in the barn.
Perhaps the most difficult lesson we can learn from our equine partners is knowing when to move on. Horses and ponies are experts at letting go of yesterday. A month or so ago, I rode my pony in the field when a bird flew out of a bush right towards his face. Being the alarmist that he is, he came entirely unglued. The sky was falling, the world was ending, and clearly the evil pony-eating wren was out to kill him. He stayed in panic mode for a couple minutes until some soft talking and refocusing brought him back down. The next day when we went out in the field, all was forgotten. No grudge against the bush which hid the bird. No panic when another bird flew overhead. Sometimes life tosses a bird in our face, and we have to learn how to revaluate and let go of the plan. We have to learn how to face things again without being haunted by the past.
Whether you rode during childhood or have committed your life to the sport, horses make us lifelong learners. They stretch and push (sometimes shove) us out of our comfort zones. They teach us to use muscles we never knew existed, but the most important lessons we learn from our horses have nothing to do with being in the saddle at all. We learn to be flexible, be present, be authentic, and to be honest with ourself and with others around us.
Every equestrian I know will tell you the same thing: that having horses in their lives is the single best decision they ever made. Every sacrifice to make it happen was completely worth it. Having horses is not just a thing you do, it is the very essence of you. We wouldn’t have it any other way. They teach us to be the very best version of ourselves.
About the Author: Ponymomammy juggles her roles of mother (two human, two ponies, and three doggos), wife, perpetual amateur, and accidental co-owner of Black River Show Stables in Camden, SC. When not shuttling kids, or riding, she can be found feebly attempting to clean or cook, usually in dirty breeches from an earlier hack. Both she and her daughter enjoy showing on both the local, and A rated, show circuits.
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