BY TAYLOR SANTOSUOSSO
“Try horseback riding lessons,” they said.
“Horses keep you out of trouble,” they said.
Well, what they don’t tell you about horseback riding is that being a “horse girl” can be hard.
Anyone who claims the title of “horse girl” does so before the age of 14. As you age, you may stop wearing the horse t-shirts to school or using your social media accounts to post about your horse every day. But even if you stop doing these things, you’ve already been dubbed “horse girl” by your peers. The only problem is, you’re starting to care about the term.
In your mid-teens, with social media a present force, you start to wonder when and why you became “weird.” Once middle school hit, it was no longer acceptable to have a passion. Everyone had to be the same, like sheep going about their daily grazing. Everyone now believed that they were in the big leagues, and the only way to survive in the big leagues is to blend in. The girl who loved The Big Bang Theory was “weird,” the boy who loved fencing was “weird,” the boy who could recite every line from that week’s WWE was “weird.”
You were “weird.”
But the football player, the track star, the basketball king, and the softball queen—never “weird.” You spend a lot of afternoons sitting in your horse’s stall, patting her nose and telling her that the kids at school will just never understand.
What they don’t tell you about horseback riding is that you never get your money back.
Buying the horse is really the cheapest part of the sport, with some off-the-racetrack horses being practically given away after failed careers. Of course, these are the ones you get. There is a certain thrill about taking an uneducated, unpredictable animal and turning it into your life’s work. Some people debate whether or not you’ll ever see a show ring, but as far as you’re concerned, all you need is four legs, a beating heart, and some confidence.
For the horse’s care alone, however, the monthly board kills you. If you’d like just a lawn in the middle of nowhere with a run-in shed, you can expect about $200 per month. If you’d like indoor riding arenas, heated wash stalls, and happen to live just a tad too close to Boston, you’re looking at $2,000 per month. Oh, and feed averages out to about $300 per month (you know, since your horse refuses to eat anything except 1st cut hay at $10/bale and the $30 bag of grain that lasts a week and you have to special request at the feed store) and the farrier is another $150.
If you’d like to hone in on your riding skills on top of this, forget it. Lessons are often between $40-60 per lesson, with top-notch trainers charging as much as $150 per lesson. You can’t find those within an hour of you anyway, so $40 it is. Showing can be anywhere between $75 for one day or $2,000 for the week at a high-rated event, if you could ever qualify for one of those in the first place. Expect to spend a small fortune on tack and riding apparel. Regardless of whether you take the cheapest route possible or strive for top-notch care and equipment, the average equestrian spends about $16,000 annually on horse-related expenses.
You are broke. You work at the barn from 5AM to 8PM on the weekends and every day after school, making just enough to cover a lease fee for your 20-something year old horse and one lesson per week with the assistant trainer. You arrive home at 9PM, exhausted and broken, just to open your Facebook to find posts from girls younger than you thanking their staff and trainers for making their winter in Florida “unforgettable” and ending their posts with, “for all the girls out there working hard, keep up the good work and you could be here someday!”
You wonder if hard work actually makes the dream work, or if money does.
What they don’t tell you about horseback riding is that your horse’s health is usually better than yours.
Working in a barn every day turns you into a physical mess. Cleaning stalls leaves your hands bloody, scabbed, and scarred from the chaffing of the pitchfork handle. Your arms are often covered in itchy hives from days full of transporting hay. Your nails have been home to the same dirt for the past 3 years. Your back is never quite right and makes mundane tasks like sitting down difficult, but you can’t go to the doctor because you’re using the funds for your horse’s upcoming chiropractic appointment. Your joints and your hips are stiff and make cracking noises every time you move, scaring your friends. In fact, most equestrians need hip replacements by the time they hit 45 because the constant shock absorption from riding has given them irreversible injuries. You don’t think a hip replacement is a big deal, though, and you know you would be riding again a week after surgery.
You think about this as you opt-out of your student health plan.
What they don’t tell you about horseback riding is that nobody likes each other.
When you were little, you and your barn friends all bonded over your love of horses. Now, though, none of you understand each other. The western riders think that the jumpers are pushing their horses too hard. The jumpers think that the competitive trail riders aren’t serious athletes. None of the different disciplines get along. Barns are specialized and you don’t try any discipline besides the one you signed up for at the age of 4 and have stuck with ever since.
There are always one or two girls at your barn or on your team that you and everyone else just can’t seem to understand. She’s snobby or rude or always seems to be in the way. You understand that everything would be easier if you just got along, but problems build up until there is no hope of reconciliation. On day one at a new barn, you meet a girl that sticks her nose in the air and exclaims that she hates Thoroughbreds.
Your horse is a Thoroughbred.
But there are some people in the sport that make the drama worth it. Weekday movie nights with teammates turn into pulling an all-nighter to watch the entire Twilight series. Your coach offers you opportunities that she knows you can’t afford, so she pays for it herself. The little lesson kid at your barn makes you a card on Christmas and says that she wants to be like you when she’s older. Sometimes, if you look hard enough, you find your people.
What they don’t tell you about horseback riding is that you will encounter unrealistic body standards.
You will have the opportunity to take your 20-something year old pony to a highly-ranked competition one day and run into many girls on $100,000 horses that they just recently imported from Europe. This doesn’t bother you, as you’re just happy to have found a way to make it there in the first place. But you realize how “perfect” everyone looks in their size 0 clothes. They work perfectly with their horses, appearing to not be moving in the saddle at all. The last girl enters the ring and she looks more like you, not overweight but owns her curves. Did she have to work a little bit harder to keep up with her horse? She loses the class.
After this competition, you begin to work on your weight. You’re already working a highly physically-demanding job, so your diet has to be sacrificed. According to your height, age, and activity level, you should be consuming about 2,000 calories per day, but you eat about half that. You’re so busy working at the barn anyway that hunger is never really on your mind. Your boyfriend and your dad slide in comments from time to time about how your eating habits aren’t exactly healthy, but they can’t argue with “I’m just not hungry.”
What they don’t tell you about horseback riding is that you will lose your best friend someday.
You will have grown up with a horse that didn’t help you in the competition ring at all. You will have lost a good 90% of your competitions from the past 10 years and you will have fallen off or been injured enough times to worry your parents. You will have spent your allowance, birthday money, and tax returns on keeping this horse happy. She will soon be 26 years old and you will have had her for 11 years. She will start to lose weight despite your efforts to feed her the best forage. You will take her to the hospital for testing and find that she is not going to get better. When you are twenty, a young adult and so many years past that “horse girl” in school, you will have to make the decision to lay your best friend to rest.
Suddenly, the awards, injuries, and constant teasing at school won’t seem to matter anymore. You will remember riding her at the annual beach ride, summers full of swimming with her in your local pond, and the time you slipped a note under your parents’ door begging them to buy her in the first place. You will remember the time she let your trainer’s 3-year-old daughter lead her around the property, and the time she stood patiently while a tent blew through the area while all the other horses dumped their riders and galloped away. You will remember how much you love this horse.
What they don’t tell you about horseback riding is that it will tear you apart. It will feel like your heart is shattered into a hundred pieces scattered around dust and shavings in the barn.
What they don’t tell you, but you find out, is that those pieces get put back together again by your barn family, the good trainers, the touch of a different, but equally velvety nose on your shoulder. And when you’re whole again, you’re better—stronger—from the love of this sport.
Taylor Santosuosso is a current biology major and member of the riding team at St. Lawrence University. She has been riding competitively for 16 years and is currently working towards her USDF Bronze Medal in dressage. She is hoping to attend veterinary school after graduating and currently volunteers with the organizations World Vets and New England Equine Rescue North.