I’m not sure when riding stopped being fun for me.
It crept up on me. A dread that began on my way to the barn and didn’t ease until the ride was over.
At first, I couldn’t put a finger on it. I was just worried and anxious. But eventually my thoughts drifted to the same worries over and over. I would think about my unsteady position over jumps. The independant seat I know I haven’t mastered. I would fret over how likely I was to disappoint my trainer that day.
Needless to say, by the time my car pulled into the barn parking lot I was already a bundle of nerves.
I’ll let you into the irony here: I’m an adult beginner. I got into riding about five years ago as a way to add balance to the chaos caused by my stressful job in New York City. A way to help my brain mellow out.
I thought maybe a lesson here or there would be enough. But like any true equestrian, the addiction has a quick and powerful bite. Riding—even plodding around at a slow and steady trot—cleared my mind and the stressful thoughts that lived there. I was at the barn as often as possible, addicted to the cathartic effect.
Eventually I moved to a barn out in New Jersey and bought my first horse. I was never striving to show or to be the best. I just wanted to be a safe and effective rider. And to keep doing what I love.
So how did I get here, to a place where just thinking about riding causes so much anxiety?
Expectations changed everything. For starters, I was buying into what I thought other people expected of me.
“You should be making more progress by now.”
“You should be onto bigger jumps by now.”
“You should be more confident by now.”
But the worst expectations are the ones you place on yourself.
Turns out, learning how to ride is not an episodic process. You don’t just learn how to canter in one lesson. Or become a confident rider in a week. You build a series of positive experiences, one on top of another, and allow yourself to grow from there. Those positive experiences compound and develop like a muscle memory.
Here’s the zinger: everyone does this at their own pace. (That trainer I’m so worried about disappointing? She taught me this.) Not Sally’s pace. Not Bill’s pace. Your own pace.
So if any of this sounds familiar to you, learn from my mistake and try dropping the expectations—just for one single ride. Go on a hack, gallop in a field, do a small and easy jump or just have a good old meandering trail ride—whatever is most relaxing to you. Just go have that expectation-less ride, like a cheat day on your diet.
The next day you just might get back in the saddle relaxed, recommitted and ready to appreciate the fun in riding!