In the past few years, a previously unsavory sounding term has become a hip way of describing someone with admirable, credible traits that the rest of us esteem: badass. In fact, a quick Amazon search turns up nearly a dozen self-help books with “badass” in the title (e.g. You Are a Badass, How to Unleash Your Inner Badass, and so on.)
Last year a colleague suggested that part of our roles as riding instructors and trainers was to give our students a sense of this strong, satisfied state called “badass”.
I pondered this idea, but then arrived pretty quickly at the conclusion that within the horse world, “badass” is not in short supply. I did not need to lead my students to it; they found their way almost daily. It was, after all, what drove them out to the barn year after year, to long sweaty trail rides, to reaching for goals and buddying up with an animal ten times their size. If anything, my students show me what it means to be badass, not the other way around.
My student Marilyn turns 80 next year and still rides four times a week. She insists on keeping her stamina up despite getting winded after the second lap of canter. You have to push me, she urges when I want to ease off and give her a rest. Last year, when the muscle loss of passing mid-70’s caught up to her, she got tired of feeling weak. So she began working with a personal fitness trainer for the first time in her life. Marilyn is feisty and determined, an inspiration to anyone younger that hopes to reimagine what it means to age. I would argue that I have nothing to teach her about being badass.
My student-turned-pal Donna picks up Corazon and I every Thursday and trailers us out to ride with her at one of our local parks. We frequently find ourselves bushwhacking through Manzanita, routing around eroded cracks in the trails ruined by drought, negotiating unnervingly steep descents. It’s easy to forget Donna is in her 60’s and only learned to ride horses 10 years ago. Her sense of adventure and focus often make me forget she has not been doing this her entire life. She and her mare compete on the Competitive Trail Riding circuit out here on the West Coast, and every time she recounts one of their most recent successes I wonder if I would have the gumption to take on a new hobby as challenging and complex as horseback riding in middle age. Again, I tend to think I have no insights about becoming badass that Donna has not already lived and breathed, and in turn inspired me by.
Being badass has nothing to do with self-help books or empowered strategies. It’s just the humble steady act of showing up to do something they love every day.
And then there is my student Sunny from China who is in California attending university. After college she plans to return home to join the family business. For now, she has a horse at my barn and is impressively committed to him. Five days a week she takes a bus from campus 25 minutes to a downtown parking lot, retrieves her car, and then drives 30 minutes to our barn to care for Diamante, her Quarter Horse/Arabian gelding.
She juggles all that while serving as an Economics tutor, pulling down top grades and running her dorm. Last weekend Sunny brought Diamante along with us to her first Ride and Tie race (a sport involving two riders and one horse, where riders alternate running on foot and riding the horse). She had heard my stories about the crazy sport I enjoy and wanted to try it. One scant year earlier, I had been working with her on the rudiments of riding, like canter leads and controlling her speed. Now here she was, wanting to tackle one of the most challenging events I could think of.
Our first night at the Cache Creek ride camp, it poured rain. Our tents and gear got drenched, the clay trails turned slick and sloppy. After the first few miles we got ahead of Sunny and did not see her for the rest of the race, so we were unable to coach her through what proved to be one of the most difficult races I had done. I worried about her and Diamante out there on course as it continued to rain. A few other teams came in, each with their own stories of surviving what had become an incredibly punishing event. Finally, an hour later I saw Sunny crossing the finish line pale and exhausted. She sat down on the tailgate of our truck woozy and unsteady for the next 30 minutes as we kept checking on her. She said her stomach felt off and that Diamante had taken a fall on the final muddy descent but scrambled back up unscathed. Later, we discovered that Sunny fractured her foot in the same fall. But she never complained. Nor did she consider the ride anything but a success; she has already begun planning for the next race.
Among the horsewomen I know, being badass has nothing to do with self-help books or empowered strategies. It’s just the humble steady act of showing up to do something they love every day. There is no self-congratulating or overblown sense of oneself, or even the recognition that what they are doing is badass. Much as I would like to think my role as an instructor helps them reach this enviable state, I know I am at best a tiny sliver of their experience. Anyone with horses finds her own way to being bold and motivated, challenged and clear-minded, assertive and open-hearted.
About the Author
A lifelong equestrian, Jec Ballou has devoted herself to a thorough, correct and straightforward approach to improving performance for horses and riders alike. In addition to being a nationally recognized educator about equine conditioning and gymnastic development, she is an accomplished interdisciplinary rider, trainer and athlete. She is the author of 101 Dressage Exercises for Horse & Rider, and Equine Fitness.