BY MEREDITH ANN SIMMONS
As someone who came to horseback riding later in life, I’ve often been intimidated by a sport where many of the athletes (especially those who have great “success” as it is conventionally defined) have been riding since they were able to walk. I worried that learning to ride at the age of 35 would mean that I’d never be “good.” I’ve since spent five years overcoming the difficulties of being a late-blooming equestrian and defining what “being good” at this sport means to me. This has presented me with some unique opportunities – and heartbreak – both in my riding career and my professional life.
While I spent ample time around horses growing up outside of Los Angeles, I was also a devoted junior tennis player and didn’t have enough time or money to participate in another sport that required both. As I got older, I moved away from the wide-open spaces in California and spent my 20s and 30s living in places like Washington DC and New York City. In the city, horse country isn’t merely a bike ride away! I also spent over a decade building a career as a corporate lawyer, which required lots of travel and left little time for much of anything else. But after living that hectic lifestyle for most of my adult life and becoming depressed in the wake of a crumbling marriage and a bad running injury, a friend suggested I try horseback riding. “Four legs will give you more power and confidence than two!” she insisted.
But when I began riding in my mid-30s at a barn just 40 minutes from New York City, it wasn’t intuitive to my trainer or other riders who’d grown up in the sport that I didn’t know…well, anything. I’m a petite, blonde woman who had the resources to buy the “right” clothes and equipment from the start – I looked like I was fully competent, but I didn’t have a clue. I had encountered the exact opposite of that perception of credibility throughout my career as a lawyer – I felt that being a petite, blonde woman made me seem less competent. It was at first confusing to have my kryptonite become a strength – and made it harder for me to ask for and get the instruction I needed.
Looking the Part
I think the reception to my “look” highlighted to me the ways innate biases influence people in all circumstances, but particularly in the horse world. The fact that riders and trainers alike perceived me as competent because I “looked like an equestrian” took me aback. Ours is a sport that, for better or for worse, requires specific attire, significant resources, and prizes smaller bodies. At my first barn, I rode with a diverse cross-section of riders of color; queer riders; fat riders; and equestrians of all ages. Many of these folks were much more experienced and capable than I was, but younger riders would come to me with questions because I had the petite frame, brand-name outfits, and beautiful boots.
This struck me in my professional life as well. As a young-looking woman working in financial services, I was often dealing with the reverse of my reception at the barn. Clients and co-workers assumed I was inexperienced or lacked influence because I was a young woman, when frequently, I was the one in charge! When a white-haired, male senior executive questioned my authority for the 1000th time, I felt the burn of how innate biases hurt people. People often expected a middle-aged man to be doing the job I was doing, and they dismissed my experience when I didn’t look the part. The contrast between my riding life and my professional life made me conscious of what some of my barn friends went through every day. I was able to become a much better advocate for myself and for others – both in and out of the arena.
Learning to Ask for Help
I remember the first time I was handed a grooming kit and was expected to groom and tack my own horse. I was afraid to ask, “What do I do with all this?!” I struggled for a while, wrapping myself up in the bridle, before I learned how to ask for help. It was a hard lesson – I’m an accomplished professional and to this day, I often fear that asking for help makes me look “unqualified.” But in this case, I had no choice. I was not going to be able to ride that horse unless I admitted that I didn’t know what I was doing and asked to be taught. It made me realize that asking for help was something I struggled with beyond my equestrian life. Since that day, I’ve been able to better identify when I need help, and how to ask for it, even if it’s uncomfortable to say, “I don’t know.”
Resilience is Key
I have watched kids at the barn on their ponies, and I’m always struck by how resilient they are. A bad ride; a fall – they just get back up and do it all again! I was markedly less resilient when I started riding. I was stymied by not only the fear of falling, but also feeling left-out when my peers would talk about certain pros, industry gossip, or the experience of showing. I had come to the sport as a 35 year-old, and sometimes it felt like everyone was talking about some secret world I’d never know anything about or be able to enter. I often felt like giving up because I hadn’t been steeped in the vocabulary and the culture since the womb.
It wasn’t until I took my first serious fall back in 2018 that I understood the mental and physical resilience required in order to ride. The fact that I didn’t know who Beezie Madden was and that I didn’t have an opinion on the latest rule change from any of the governing bodies wasn’t going to hold me back from being a great equestrian. Rather, a lack of resilience and adaptability were coming between me and success. I eventually got over my fears; got back on the horse; and learned that time and perseverance make for great riders. And time helps in learning the bigger picture of the sport, the culture, and the industry too.
These days, I’m happy to report that coming to a sport where I knew nothing and the risk of failure was high has given me courage and skills I never knew I could have. I’ve got a beautiful horse and found a great barn, and I’ve now got the courage to try things I didn’t think I could do. For me, this is how I define being “good” at this sport – not by the height of my jumps or the price of my outfits. By confronting the challenges; knowledge-gaps; and insecurity faced as a latecomer to equestrian sports, I’m a stronger lawyer and business woman, and, most importantly, a steadier and more compassionate rider. I learned that the personal growth I’ve experienced both in and out of the ring has made every day of the last five years worth it. So to any pony moms who are thinking about taking a ride themselves, or other adults who have been afraid to try – you can do it. And it may take time, but you’ll be shocked at what you can learn – about horses and about yourself.
Meredith Ann Simmons is a lawyer and writer based in New York City, where she lives with her family and her dog, Roo. A West Coast native, she still struggles to brave the Northeastern winters, even after nearly 20 years on the East Coast – especially when it means riding in sub-freezing temperatures. After five years of riding purely for pleasure, Meredith is hoping to finally feel confident enough to compete in shows this summer.