Running a riding school is lots of fun. I get to work around horses, and I have the privilege of introducing young people and their parents to the sport I love. Some days are magic, like when a six-year-old beginner finally begins posting the trot or a more advanced student plunks one of my steady lesson horses perfectly over a crossrail. I even enjoy cleaning stalls and hauling water every evening.
One of the few drawbacks is that I don’t ride as much as I used to, so if one of my lesson horses has an issue, I sometimes don’t catch it until they make a really clear point to me on the ground. Such was the case recently with my little buckskin mare, Ava. At this point, I’ve known Ava for most of her 18 years and owned her for half of those. She’s a former show horse, so she has all the fun “buttons” that allow kids to learn things like leg yield and proper canter cues.
And on top of that, she’s beautiful with her golden coloring and black mane and tail. If ever a stocky ancestor were to make itself evident, it would be in Ava’s rounded neck and powerful hindquarters, which harken back to the Spanish barb that influenced the development of the Quarter Horse. Despite her power — I’ve watched her sit straight down on her hindquarters and roll 180 degrees away from me when she’s playing in the pasture — Ava is the epitome of “safe,” and I’ve trusted her with many a beginner rider.
So, this past summer, when she became resistant when I asked her to move forward on the lunge line, a knot formed in my stomach as I considered the fact that my friend might be trying to communicate pain or lameness. I felt the only way to rule those out was to ride her myself to see what I felt.
After finishing lessons one warm morning, I let the stirrups down and swung up into my dressage saddle. I felt carefully for uneven steps as I trotted Ava around my arena. Nothing. But she slogged along like she typically does after giving a riding lesson to a child when she hasn’t been asked to move out.
“Maybe she just needs a change of scenery,” I thought. We left the arena and took the trails at a trot. I felt her loosen up as I stood in my stirrups and allowed her to pick her own pace past the chicken coop and along the flat lane that runs behind my house. The front part of our land is more hilly, and I knew that if she wanted to open up and run, she’d do it there, so we made our way toward the sloping power line. The ensuing experience assured me that both Ava and myself desperately needed a little time away from the norm.
As we hit the hill at a canter, I squeezed both of my calves to her barrel, and I felt her surge forward under me, catching her last gear and breaking up into a gallop, her small, grey hooves barely hitting the ground as she skimmed through the long grass. I could feel her roaring energy, open to its max, propelling both of us through the still, late-summer morning. And there was simply nothing else in that sun-dappled capsule of time. There was not the pressure to schedule lessons so as to use my time and horses responsibly while still making a financial profit. There was not the incessant mountain of clean clothes that threatens from the laundry room door. There was not the push-pull of worries I carry with me always regarding my children, my future, society’s future.
There was only this fleet, little golden being pounding away beneath me, taking me with her. The clear sweetness of the moment hit me like ice water splashing up into my face, shocking me and cleansing me simultaneously. I felt the sheer generosity of my old friend carrying me along in her decision, and I patted her neck, thanking her as we crested the hill and she slowed to a walk. Neither Ava nor I get away from the typical routine as much as we probably should, but I’ve made it a point to hop on the lesson horses more often since that day and try to replicate that moment. There’s nothing more likely to make one forget about work and worries than stopping for a minute to experience the magic of horses.