I’m not sure if I technically qualify as a beginner rider, but at age 63 with only 18 years of riding behind me, my experience pales to many my age who have been riding for a lifetime.
My beginner experience is fresh enough in my mind that I can fully relate to other adult beginners and the unique challenges, fears and frustrations we all face. Moreover, I started my riding “career” at an age where I had all of the normal responsibilities, expenses and fears that elude those who learn riding at a young age.
I may further qualify for the title “beginner” since I have been a beginner at many different aspects of horsemanship along the way: Starting as a first-time-on-a-horse beginner at age 45, I have been a beginner basic student, a beginner lessee, and a beginner rough boarder. Then a beginner barrel racer, a beginner trail rider, a beginner jumper and a beginner eventer.
I was a beginner at dressage and a beginner at horse showing. I was a beginner at trailering, both local and long distance when my daughter took her horse to college. I was a beginner horse owner, a beginner barn owner, a beginner facility designer and a beginner “trainer.”
I have been a beginner to treating different injuries and illness in horses more times than I care to remember. I have been a beginner in dealing with the death of an equine companion.
By the time we reach middle age, I guess that many of us in the position to consider riding as a hobby have become accustomed to being fairly good at whatever it is we do to raise the funds for horses. Riding—riding well—as I quickly learned, involved (at least in my case) a willingness to be really bad at something I was totally drawn to, and doing so in public without knowing if and when I would ever “get good” at it. I was out of my comfort zone; frustrating to say the least.
I have met riders who have been riding nearly all of their lives, and even some “natural riders” who started as adult beginners who can’t seem to relate to the level of frustration that many of us experience. I have had many times over the years when I have been frustrated in lessons and I think there were many different reasons:
1. My first trainer told me, “Your problem is, in your world you’re a boss; you want to THINK it, and for it to be done. That’s not the way it is here. You have to do all of the work yourself.”
I hated him for it at the time but his assessment was spot-on. Understanding the concept of something intellectually and putting in the work so that it eventually reverts to muscle memory are two very different things.
2. I needed to find the right trainer.
I rode with quite a few before I “struck gold.” The best trainers for me were the ones who had struggled to “get it” and could empathize with my struggles. Those who considered themselves natural riders usually didn’t work out for me.
Also, I needed a trainer who was not only an effective communicator but was able to communicate in a way that I could learn. I learn by visual images. A five minute detailed lecture on how tightly to hold my reins might as well be in Chinese. But tell me: “You’re holding a small bird in your hand. You don’t want it to get away, but you don’t want to crush it to death either.” That I get. Immediately.
3. Fear is a thing.
When it takes hold, “just suck it up” doesn’t always cut it. When my eventer was out of commission for over a year, I had my OTTB project waiting in the wings. She was very green and a little unpredictable. I was 56 when I started working with her and she dumped me at fences more than a few times.
I found it hard to “throw my heart over the fence” and she definitely needed me to do that. We had to back down and do flat work, poles, little cross rails again—for months!
It’s important to have a trainer who pushes you out of your comfort zone, but it’s also important to have one who knows how much is too much. Pushing too hard or to far can let the paralysis of fear take over and that’s a breeding ground for frustration. It’s important to have a trainer who gets that, and also equally important for me to be able to leave my ego at the gate and not consider that “rebooting” to be a failure.
I had gotten myself to the point that I was afraid to canter my own horse. And perhaps more afraid to admit it because in my mind I had developed a reputation as a fairly “fearless” rider. The only way I was able to get past it was to admit what I was going through, take a small step back to what I was still comfortable doing and build off of that. The obstacle was not in the arena; it was in my head.
4. Goals are a good thing.
I would accomplish little without them. But it was important that I keep my goals flexible. That applies to my goals for the year, for the show season, for the week, and even for the lesson or the ride.
I had big goals for DannyBoy in eventing one year. It was going to be our move-up season. Then he got hurt and needed surgery. I allowed myself one day of “poor me” then brushed off my OTTB mare Lola, and called my trainer. I wanted her to train me to train the mare.
It was a big undertaking for me because she knew almost nothing except how to run fast, and how to behave on the ground. My most cherished ribbon to this day was from her first show, an eventing dressage-only class. It was a second place ribbon, out of a class of two riders. But I cherish it because of the amount of dedication from Lola, my trainer and me that it represented.
Goals are great. Inflexible, unrealistic goals are an invitation to frustration.
5. Accepting change.
There were a few years where I was able to devote the time to training vigorously and I had a few pretty good seasons in local level eventing and jumpers. I have a bunch of ribbons that represent accomplishments that were beyond my wildest dreams. It’s human nature to want more of something so rewarding.
But… life is change.
I have a lot of added business and family responsibilities now—that’s reality. Horses are still a major part of my life but I’m not currently in training nor showing. Will I ever go back to it? I like to think so, at least the formal training if not the showing. But if not…that’s ok.
I still ride, and have my own training regimen and also love to be out in the woods with my horses. I help others, try to at least. I have learned to appreciate my horses for who they are as much as I used to for what they could do. I have been blessed with a grandson, now two years old, who seems to have the horse gene and a lot of my time is now spent introducing him to the joys of horses. Not embracing change is one of the quickest paths to frustration that I know.
The horse world is full of experts and I’m totally ok with saying that I’m not one of them. If I’m any good at anything it could be that I’ve learned to see “pride” in a different light and lay out the challenges I’ve faced for other riders to see and maybe identity with.
So, yeah. I’ve been frustrated in my riding, but I no longer stay that way for very long. I hope to stay a beginner forever. There’s no shame in not being perfect. It would be a shame to give up on a passion because we thought we had to be.
About the Author
Thomas Gumbrecht began riding at age 45 and eventually competed in lower level eventing and jumpers. Now a small farm owner, he enjoys working with his OTTB mare and training her for a second career, writing to share those life experiences toward which my horses have guided him, and introducing his grandson to horses.