For my 24th birthday, my friend Katie bought me three riding lessons with a hunter-jumper trainer she trusted named Cayla Stone.
On the third lesson, I flew headfirst over my schooling horse’s shoulders as I took my first attempt at bounces. Once I shook off the tears and got back on, I was hooked. For the rest of the summer, I scraped together what little I had for lessons as often as I could. I learned how to two point, I got to jump, and I discovered that my right ankle is a weak jerk.
Those lessons Katie bought changed my life. They were the seed that, once planted, ever so slowly altered the way I understand money, priorities and horses.
At the time, I had a complicated relationship with horses and money. I told myself I was too broke for riding lessons. I believed my horsey life had to be scrappy and self-made. That year, I was working for a breeding farm; I cleaned stalls, worked young horses and did chores. I also had a side hustle as a freelance writer and worked at a festival on the weekends.
Yes, at that time and now I was and am pretty dang broke, and money is still part of the equation.
I know if I compared my income with those at my current boarding barn, I would probably be the tiny piece on the pie chart. I am also aware I am not alone in the finical pinch—not just with horses, but in the country at large. An average of 40% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck. Things like healthcare, heat, rent, childcare, and college tuition have gone up 150% or more since 1990 while the median income for a middle-class family has stayed the same since 1995.
Money continues to be a struggle, but the fact is eating at restaurants fewer times or one less night out a month could have covered more lessons.
But the truth is, there were other reasons that kept me from investing in a trainer—two, specifically.
The first is that I was raised in a horse culture where formal lessons were only something people got in the movies. The prevailing ethos was you start on a beginner horse, something older, and broke and then work your way up to something greener, younger and hotter; I should learn everything I need to know from relatives, friends, and experience.
I am forever grateful to all of the friends, bosses, and especially my grandmother for sticking me up on their horses and teaching me everything they knew. In many ways, it is because of them I got the majority of my practical horsemanship. It is also amazing I didn’t end up in the hospital.
The last reason though was the big one. The reason I didn’t pay for lessons is because I didn’t think I deserved them. I believed I wasn’t worth the investment. I would never be one of those, beautiful, well-off, competent horsewomen, so why bother?
I could argue about identity politics and income inequality with more intensity than an alpha mare in front of a grain bucket, but proclaiming I am just as valid as anybody else makes me cower in the corner. However, I am fighting. Since my first lesson with Cayla, I have moved away and learned many different things from many different trainers. Slowly the holes fill in. I am now even leasing a horse named Flower, and my current trainer patiently puts us through our paces.
I will be turning 30 this month, and if I could, I would tell my younger self that I was worthy of every penny. I know that stubborn girl, and she probably would’ve ignored me. What she might have listened to though was this: “Invest in yourself, and other horses will come your way.”
Because I had formal training and loads of practice, I got to gallop up mountains in the mist and ride fancy stallions in front of a thousand people. I have ridden along the sea and up to castles. Because I invested in myself, I have an entire lexicon of other incredible equine experiences—and I deserve every one of them.
About the Author
Gretchen Lida is an essayist and an equestrian. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Rumpus, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and many others. She is also a contributing writer to Book Riot and the Washington Independent Review of Books and currently working on her first book. She teaches composition in Illinois, lives in Chicago, sometimes resides on Nantucket Island, and is still a Colorado native. Find her on Twitter at @GC_Lida.