Dear 15-Year-Old(ish) Me,

How’ve you been? I suppose it’s summertime in Upstate New York, now, which means you’ll likely be at the barn all day, every day.

You won’t come back home until your bare arms and polo shirt are shellacked with dirt, sweat, and horse hair. You’ve mucked stalls, turned out, and ridden anything you could get your hands on—which means you’ve also given at least four full baths in those beat-to-death, permanently waterlogged Ariat zip paddock boots.

Your parents will hear you squishing down the mudroom hallway long before you come through the door, and will undoubtedly yell at you to “take those filthy things off and get in the shower” before you “track horse crud all over the house.”

Needless to say, you sleep well at night, almost every night at this time in your life.

Your hands are hard and calloused like a 50-something construction worker, but you’re healthy, fit, and tan (up to your T-shirt and jean hemlines, at least). You are walking proof of the fact that a little sunshine and sweet country air, filled with the smell of leather and second-cutting hay, are good for the growing body and mind.

But not everything is coming up roses.

You’ll never be a blue-ribbon rider in the hunter ring, but (as you’ve always known) one day soon, you’ll realize you’re destined for the jumpers anyway. In the meantime, you’ll live for those small, breakthrough moments with the young horses you’re lucky enough to ride. Don’t worry: they’ll serve you better in the long run.

At this present moment, you don’t yet know the heartbreak that inextricably comes with horses if you love and ride them long enough, and part of me envies you for that.

But no matter. All things, good and bad, will come in time. And right now, we need to talk about something a little more pressing.

We need to talk about your tack.

Oh yeah, is that ringing a bell?

Right now, it’s probably heaped in the corner of the tack room, saddle pad still damp and flipped upward, coated with hair from the last two horses of the day. Your saddle (a fourth-hand, hand-me-down special, no doubt) has been chucked in beneath it, flaps slightly askew. Your wonkily hung bridle and bit are likely caked with the remnants of a hundred rides on your own horse, having only been soaked, cleaned, and polished for the last show you attended months ago.

I don’t know for a fact, but I’m almost certain that your threadbare stirrup leathers are just a hair’s breadth away from breaking. At this point, every time you throw a leg over a horse, you’re effectually spinning the cartridge in your own game of cowboy Russian roulette.

But it’s not like you can’t afford to replace them.

Those summer dollars you’re earning at the barn doing chores could pay for new leathers. Or your mom, upon learning of your impeding demise, would happily lend you the money.

It’s not a lack of dedication, or time, or even a case of teenage laziness, really. It’s simply the fact that you don’t know better, even if your trainer, your mom, and even a few of your older barn friends have gently (and not so gently) reminded you otherwise.

You’re young, you’re heedlessly ambitious, and in your own mind, you’re invincible. But the real problem is, you’re selectively careless.

For instance, you would never leave a horse half-groomed, or feet unpicked, or put a hot, puffing mount back in its stall. You pride yourself on being a good horseman; on doing all of it yourself and doing it well.

You think, hey, I’ll just cut a few, harmless corners, and I’ll save time for more horses, more rides, and more experience. You still don’t see the connection between lifting a dirty bit into the gelding-you-love’s mouth and what that says about the value you place not just on yourself, but on him.

Someday very soon, though, you will.

Because it won’t be long before you land a grooming job for a big-name rider on a big-name show circuit far away. And boy, will you ever learn. Not only will each saddle and pair of brush boots be meticulously cleaned after each ride on the four horses under your care, but the bridles, brass fittings, and bits will be carefully scrubbed and polished.

A horse won’t leave its stall without returning with its legs carefully scrubbed, towel-dried, and finished in front of a fan. Pillowy saddle pads will never be reused with even the slightest smudge of dirt, and tack, in all its forms, will be carefully folded away and stashed under lock and key in trunks at the end of each day.

Slowly, as the weeks progress, you’ll realize you’re changing.

In a day filled with exhausting physical tasks, you’re starting enjoy the quiet, still moments that come with previously detested jobs. Scrubbing the webbing between braided reins. Carefully rolling wraps so they are firm and tight. Brushing the arena dirt from between the ridges of stirrup pads.

The work begins to give you a sense of pride, and even greater satisfaction, when you finally tie your bridles up and hang them in a perfect figure-8. You smile at the way the leather feels buttery softy between your fingers, the buckles gleaming beneath the barn lights.

It’s not lost on you, the intensity with which your rider studies and analyzes his bits and tack: tweaking this, trading one kind of noseband for another.

With mere millimeters sometimes making the difference between four-faults and a clear round over a technical, five-foot track, saddles, bits, bridles, stirrup leathers, and the like are more than just requisite pieces of equipment. They are one of the few variables fully within a rider’s control when the pressure is on, and the margin for error is nil.

When you get back to your own barn late that summer (a little wirier, a little wiser—but that’s another story) you’ll realize two things.

One: Working faster is almost aways an asset, but there are some corners that should not be cut.

And two: You can tell a true horseman not only by the way she rides, but by the care she demonstrates for every aspect of her program, tack and equipment included.

But don’t worry, these are lessons you’ll take to heart.

The changes you’ll make in your own riding will be permanent and meaningful, as evident by the carefully hung figure-8s in tack room locker right now. (A little word to the wise: Start dunking your bits in a bucket of water as soon as you get off; it’ll save you boatloads of scraping and scrubbing in the years to come!)

Trust me on this one 😉


Your 40-ish, Adult-Ammie Self