• Reflections Of A Horseback Rider

    A writer looks back on some important life lessons that horseback riding taught her–plus where to ride in the city.

    By Erin Shea

    Erin's dad and a family friend assist her during a pony ride when she's 3 years old.

    I can’t explain why I started riding. I guess in a way I was born into it, since both of my parents are horse lovers. My mother rode when she was younger and my father was involved in the thoroughbred racing business. I barely remember the first time I was on a horse, but according to my parents it was the pony rides at a festival in my hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio, when I was 3 years old.

    I finally asked for riding lessons a few years later. As an animal lover, I wanted to be involved with horses any way I could, and learning how to ride seemed to be the answer.

    Soon after my first lesson, I found myself going to the barn a few times a week for either formal instruction or to hang out with the other kids. On Saturday mornings, I enjoyed getting there early to help clean the stalls in exchange for riding lessons. At that age I was more willing to clean a horse’s stall than my own room.

    The lessons I learned in that messy but much-loved stall ring true to this day as I navigate the world of being a twentysomething living and working in New York City. I gained respect for animals and other people and discovered how to be a responsible young adult. If one of the riders had been careless in not cleaning or putting away the bridles after a lesson, our trainer would hide them from us so that we’d have to go on an elaborate search before we could tack-up our horse the next time. After an exhausting few minutes spent searching for your stuff, you make sure to never leave anything laying around again.

    Riding also taught me independence and discipline. I soon realized that no one else was responsible for my achievements and mistakes but me. Working hard day after day was expected. It wasn’t easy going an entire lesson without stirrups while a trainer yells, “Eyes up! Shoulders back! Heels down!” But it was worth it after bringing home the ribbons from shows.

    As I got older, I started riding almost every day of the week—sometimes multiple horses a day—and showing regularly. The barn wasn’t a place to simply hang out anymore; it was a break from school and a time to perfect my sport. I worked with serious trainers and equally serious competitors so that I could be stronger during competition.

    When I was 14 years old, I started to feel pain in my right elbow. It seemed to be overworked from cleaning stalls in the barn, playing softball, and riding. During a jump-off round (used to determine the placing of the competitors) my high-spirited mare, a former racehorse named Kim, forcefully yanked her head down. I felt a sharp pain radiate through my arm. Like any serious competitor would, I finished the jump-off with the reins in one hand. I immediately went to the hospital straight from the ring. I later found out that I got a second place in that class. Not too bad for one-handed riding.

    However, there was bad news. My arm wasn’t just overworked; I had a benign tumor growing close to my elbow and needed surgery. But while I was bold enough to ride a 1,200-pound animal over a four-foot fence, the thought of having an arm operation terrified me.

    Cut to four surgeries and almost three years later: I was finally tumor free and ready to resume riding. When the time finally came for me to get back in the saddle, it just so happened that Bo, a sweet older thoroughbred in our barn, recently had colic surgery and needed to be rehabbed back into shape—just like me. We started slowly and both made full recoveries later that year, eventually competing in the jumper divisions with Bo’s new show name, Bodacious.

    Years later when I went to college, I volunteered with an organization that retrained ex-racehorses for new careers. Being a thoroughbred lover, this was the opportunity of a lifetime to be able to give back to the community and work alongside the animals that gave me so much while I was growing up. Training young, sensitive thoroughbreds taught me to be strong mentally and physically, since they take advantage of any weaknesses and mistakes. If you’re not giving all you have, you’re not helping the horses. Some days I would start before the sun came up, ride multiple horses a day, do barn chores, and then go to class. The real reward was seeing them adopted into loving forever-homes and start new careers as pleasure horses, show horses, or children’s horses.

    Sadly, I don’t ride much nowadays, but I would take it up again in a heartbeat. The introspection and lessons learned from riding can be beneficial to anyone, especially young children who are just learning about personal responsibility. I’ve been able to apply the confidence, dedication, and respect that I’ve learned through riding to all aspects of my life. And, on a no less trivial note, I’ve learned to have better posture as a result. If I ever begin to slouch, I can hear a trainer’s voice in the back of my mind, “Shoulders back!”

    WHERE TO LEARN TO RIDE

    Manhattan

    NYC Riding Academy nycridingacademy.org

    Brooklyn

    Jamaica Bay Riding Academy horsebackride.com

    Kensington Stables kensingtonstables.com

    Queens

    Forest Equine Center forestequinecenter.com

    Lynne’s Riding School lynnesridingschoolnyc.com

    Staten Island

    Richer Farm, Inc. richerfarminc.com

    The Bronx

    Bronx Equestrian Center bronxequestriancenter.com

    Riverdale Equestrian Center riverdaleriding.com

    Westchester County

    Boulder Brook Equestrian Center boulderbrookequestrian.com

    Chicory Meadow Farm chicorymeadowfarm.com

    Fox Hill Farms foxhillfarms.com

    New Jersey

    Essex Equestrian Centre essexequestrian.com

    Rockleigh Equestrian Centre rockleighequestriancentre.com

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