BY ASHLEY COLLINS
People don’t ride horses to be social. It’s not a sport like tennis or golf, where people join clubs in order to meet people who share their athletic hobby. In fact, I don’t know a single person who started riding to make friends.
Amateurs ride for a variety of other reasons. We may be attracted to horses for their beauty or to harness their speed and power, some deep biological ancestry humming in our veins. We could even be drawn to horses out of loneliness. Their emotional sensitivity provides silent compassion. Whatever the reason, it’s the horses that connect us to people in this sport, generally not the other way around.
When I was a kid, horses were my friends. I tolerated human interaction in order to get what I wanted—to ride. But when I went to college I had to quit riding. It wasn’t until my 40s that I came back to the sport. Even as an adult, I had no social expectations at the barn. Let’s face it, people who ride are a bit unusual. I’m not saying we’re all anti-social, but there’s a definite propensity to prefer animals over humans in the horse world.
And yet, I have made some of my best friends as an adult through riding. This is partly because most middle aged amateur riders have led full lives already and have interesting stories to tell. But a shared passion alone isn’t a big enough friendship filter for a cynical person like me.
At first, I didn’t bond with Michael and Heather at the barn. Michael worked during the week and rode on weekends, so I didn’t see him very often. And when I first met Heather she still had four kids at home. Even if we crossed paths between lessons, we didn’t interact much. At the time, I was going through a divorce and empty nest, and the only communication I could handle was with my horse. But we all became friends during the Vermont Summer Festival one night, over Thai food and a couple bottles of wine.
I didn’t know Heather was from the midwest until the wine loosened her tongue and her vowels broadened. I didn’t know she was a math person either, or that she was a Chartered Financial Analyst and still dabbled in the market after she quit work to have a family. Before that dinner, I knew her as a good, occasionally hesitant, rider who in general preferred lessons to showing. The pressure involved in competing sometimes altered her carefully mapped out progress.
I learned in Vermont that she not only had a logical and binary mind, but a strong maternal streak. She would bring enough food and drinks to our set up at the show to feed a football team (including wine!). As I got to know her better, I was fascinated by her ability to juggle those two very different characteristics. I struggled mightily in an effort to balance my emotional capacity with my rational mind, especially in parenting, and realized that I could learn from her.
I knew Michael had a big job as Chief Marketing Officer for a high end retail firm. I knew he had been with his husband for 25 years, that he had dogs, was hysterically funny, and that we liked each other immediately. But I didn’t know he was from Virginia. That he found horses at a young age like me, the barn a sanctuary, and jumping a lifesaving addiction. I didn’t know how observant he was, how artistic his eye or quick his mind, until we drove the golf cart from ring to ring the day after that Thai dinner, coffee cups full of wine in hand, celebrating our satisfactorily completed rounds and watching our barn mates compete.
It’s been five years since that show in Vermont. Over those years, Heather has helped guide me through my divorce and parenting challenges. She brought me food when I was sick, and has taken care of my horse. She is my first call when I need cool advice or maternal female attention heavily disguised (the only way I can tolerate it).
Michael and I share the deep craving that only horse energy can fill. It gives us an emotional shorthand with each other, like siblings. He and his husband came often to dinner when I was first separated, knowing I needed people. They bonded with my youngest daughter, still in high school then, and filled our sad hearts with laughter. Now they spend Christmas with us every year.
I ride because I can’t not ride. I need my horse like I need oxygen, and I love jumping with the fervor of an addict. I don’t know what the future holds, with Covid and the economy, and my ability to keep financing this sport. Like most amateur riders, I’ve survived challenging times before, but these past few years it has been in large part due to unexpected friends like Heather and Michael.
I could never have predicted these relationships when I started riding. But they have now transcended my horse world, and are as much a gift as the horses themselves.
Ashley Collins is mother to three grown children and currently lives in Connecticut. She graduated from Stanford University in 1987 with a BA in Anthropology. Her work has appeared online at HuffPost, Grown and Flown, Equestrian Weekly, Mothers Always Write, Horse Network, the Roar Sessions, and published in the anthologies Nothing But The Truth So Help Me God: 73 Women on Transitions and Here In The Middle: Stories of Love, Loss, and Connection from the Ones Sandwiched Between. She also competes as an Equestrian Showjumper. You can read more about her at ashleycollinswriter.com and on social media at facebook.com/ashleycollinswriter and instagram.com/ashleygriffincollins.