I was 7 years old the first time I sat on a horse. He was 30 years old, at least 17 hands tall and his name was Brown Jug. While he was standing still, another horse rubbed his head against me and I fell off. I was hooked.
Although my parents couldn’t subsidize my obsession with horses, I somehow cajoled return visits to Brown Jug and his friends at a local riding stable, plus occasional beach trail rides and western riding camp. I got my driver’s license at 9 a.m. on my 16th birthday and drove straight to a riding stable where for two years I spent all my available baby-sitting cash on regular weekly lessons. My favorite horses were a bay gelding named Pat and a chestnut mare named Folly. When I was really flush, I rode twice a weekend.
There was no Pony Club, but I was able to join a so-called junior hunt club there. The stable was on an island in the middle of the Columbia River, and it didn’t specialize. We had everything from western pleasure to saddle seat and jumpers. Sometimes the same horses did all three.
Fast forward through six years of college, grad school and a move to the East Coast. The first weekend of my first real job, I was back at a riding stable, this time for good. Weekly lessons evolved into a lease and soon my own horse as I found my way from hunters to eventing and then dressage. Within four years I was married with my own small farm and foals decorating the front yard. Decades later I’m still riding, teaching and judging.
It bothers me deeply, though, that when I teach it’s always people on their own horses, mostly adults. Where I now live, near New York City, I don’t see any place a child of moderate means can learn to ride unless his or her family is already involved with horses.
Where do people go who want to ride if they don’t already have access to a horse’ Between the loss of open land and financial limitations imposed by insurance and property taxes, many stables have given up their lesson strings for just boarders or have closed. In some areas, you can’t find a place to ride any more by flipping through the Yellow Pages.
If the urban majority of Americans have little opportunity to interact with horses, they might conclude that the priorities of horse people have little importance when it comes to zoning and legislative issues. Those who want to maintain their horsey lifestyle should encourage ways to welcome non-horsey folks into the fold.
I hold a deep appreciation of those hard-working people who buck the trend of high property taxes and insurance and provide the service of lessons for beginners. They remain a much needed though endangered segment of our horseman’s ecosystem.
If I were a kid now instead of 40 years ago, I might never learn to ride. The acreage on the Columbia River island where my old stable once stood now holds a trailer park.