I think I’ve heard all the clichés about change that I can stand. At a certain age, we don’t need to be reminded how hard change is. But fall is all about change, I notice. Most of us get poked by the passing of time, in one way or another, right about this time of the year. Falling leaves and all that…

Like usual, there are extremes: Every now and then, I read an article declaring that riding horses is cruel. Any horse. That it’s just too demeaning for horses; that ethics require that all horses be freed from their slavery to humans. I might be imagining the righteous tone. Return them all to the wild, I guess.

On the other hand, I hear from riders in their nineties, riding horses in their thirties, with an arthritic shell of bravado. Good for you, really. So pleased that your horse has avoided injuries that long, and the same for you. What luck.

Then there are the rest of us, pushing the muck cart and casually wondering which hip will be replaced first. We have horses that had long careers or got hurt in turnout or weren’t born with perfect conformation. Or maybe we just aren’t lucky. Is it time for someone to be turned out to pasture?

Has it crossed your mind that your horse is slowing down? Maybe more than once? Is it really hard to push him to the canter and then he breaks right away? Or maybe he’s reluctant about being caught. After a sluggish warm-up, he seems depressed and you kick him a little more all the time. Or maybe he drops his head lower and lower. That’s if he’s stoic, of course. Not every horse has that patience.

So you check with the vet, try some stronger supplements, and that buys you another year. Then you start negotiating. No more steep trails, or maybe you get new arena footing. But now you’re asking yourself again if it’s time.

I’m sorry it hurts, but listen to him. Good horses don’t randomly start lying. And if your horse really is asking for the break, I know it breaks you even more, but let him rest. In this light, a career-ending injury has the clarity that slow-motion decline lacks. Maybe he’ll feel better in the spring and maybe not, but for now, let him be and tell him he’s a good boy. A horse’s riding life isn’t a race where the last one standing wins. Don’t make him feel he’s failed you.

Love him enough.

Maybe it’s you that is having a hard time; your past injuries are catching up and it’s hard to get comfortable in the saddle. Maybe you are a certain age and your courage hormones have abandoned you. They do that, you know.

Or time makes you rush too much. You have a list of all your lists and so many people depending on you. You burst into the barn and ride fast, but you’re still late. Your horse behaves like the victim of a drive-by assault. It’s an honest response and you’ll deal with it when you have more time.

Or maybe your fear has just grown an inch at a time until it became disabling. It isn’t that you aren’t as brave as you once were; it’s an actual full-blown anxiety attack that you’re trying to fight but it never goes away. It’s a fear that paralyzes your lungs and you can’t control your limbs. It isn’t the usual common sense alert that something might happen. It’s an air raid siren that never goes silent. Never. You know your horse feels it, too. Would it be different on another horse?

So, you get the help of a kind trainer and you do your very best. Still, you dread worst, every stride, and fear never lets you breathe. It happens every time, but you don’t admit the truth. Months pass, you know you’re safe, but there’s no logic or relief when it comes to fear. It’s possessed you.

You feel obligated. You feel like a loser. You’re too old or too busy or too frightened. You’d hate to think what people might say. You’d be letting your horse down. But in the quiet, when you listen to your heart, you know.

Love yourself enough.

We all have dry spells and going into winter is a great time to take a break. Nothing bad will happen. He won’t miss your holiday stress. He won’t forget his training and neither will you. I promise. Come spring, you’ll be back in the saddle and the view will be different. That’s the way change works; you can depend on it.

If you know it’s bigger than a season, take a breath and try to tell the truth. You might have to say it a few times to get through it. Integrity matters because secrets, or the illusion of them, are poison. Besides, he knows.

What if it isn’t wrong?

I have a barn half-full of retired horses; some have been retired longer than they were ridden. They let me know every day that they are no less for it. We should have that confidence.

Humans seem to put so much self-judgment on whether they ride or not. I see it every day, as an instructor. Riding is wonderful; I’m glad I’m still in the saddle. But the longer I’m around horses, the more I believe that they don’t care if we ride or not. Relationship, as it relates to herd dynamics, is what matters to horses, and that isn’t defined by our altitude. Maybe it’s time to re-invent ourselves and up the conversation. Wouldn’t it be ironic if no longer riding meant that our horsemanship improved?

The scary question: If it’s the end of the world, what will you do instead of riding? Love them, just like you always have. That never changes.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Equine Pro
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