In my youth, I pointedly pursued activities that I perceived as “macho,” and horses were decidedly not one of those. Who knew that it would take horses to ultimately teach me what it was to be a man?

My mom had genteel interests: she had been a ballerina, taught classical ballet and was an animal lover; we got along well, but I was my dad’s son: a tradesman, very mechanical, self-sufficient.

I spent my young adulthood and early middle age doing things that typified what I thought defined a “masculine” strength of character that I wanted to project. I chuckle when I realize that I found it in the pursuit of a sport in the English riding arena, something that at least in my area and at my level, is female dominated. 

From the time that I was a child I, like most young boys at the time, chased that largely undefinable but very real quality known as “being a man.” It began with smoking, hard drinking, and building fast cars. It progressed to working in construction, flying airplanes, learning to jump out of them, off-roading—I was always finding new ways to indulge in risk-taking to a degree that I hoped would earn me that elusive title.

But as much I pursued it, it always seemed to stay just out of reach.

I met the first horse I would eventually ride while on an electrical construction project at a Long Island show barn. I became quite attracted to the horse, the riding, and horse people. It didn’t fit the mold of what I had decided was “manly” but two things happened: 1) I was developing a passion for horses and horsemanship to a degree that it would not be derailed by my preconceived notions and 2) I had gotten older and didn’t care as much how people perceived me.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was letting go of my pursuit of “manliness” in order to follow the path on which my heart was taking me. In doing so, I discovered completely new definitions of what it was to be a man. 

I learned the difference between controlling and cooperating. Airplanes are to be controlled, and that’s what my life was about when I was actively flying them. Horses are about cooperation, I was to learn, sometimes painfully. Imposing my will with iron-jawed determination only works for a little while with horses.

I learned how it is to truly put the needs of another being above my own. I had payed lip service to the concept in the past, but never owned it.

I learned powerlessness and what it feels like to just do the best I can, without any knowledge of what the ultimate result will be. I learned how to let go when letting go was the right thing to do.

I learned that “my way or the highway” does not fly with horses, and in learning that, I learned that it does not work very well with the humans in my life either. I learned, to a large extent, to ignore transgressions and not take them personally, and to be generous in rewarding when compliance is attempted. 

Working with horses has made me a better grandparent to young Daniel. ©Thomas Gumbretch

I had sought out experiences to make me appear aggressive and brave, as I thought those were the makings of a man. The horse does not care how you appear; he knows what lurks in your soul and responds to only that. In horsemanship, we become honest or fail. I was taught all about honesty by these beings that live in a world that knows no other way, and found that total honesty in dealing with others requires more courage than aggression or threats.

I wanted to excel as a rider, and in doing so I was forced to live in their world, the world of the here and now. Moving forward required letting go of the past and not obsessing about the future. I learned to be playful and silly with these giant playmates who required no mind altering substances to facilitate it. I began to understand the concept of true partnership. I discovered what a gift it is to uncover and pursue your passion in life.

The author with his APHA gelding DannyBoy. ©Thomas Gumbretch

It’s a bunch of years later now, and through the benefit of hindsight I find myself confident and secure in the belief that the universe found horses as the way to help me become the man I was destined to be.