by Laura Crum
A boy and his horse—racing their shadow on the ground. I love this photo. Not because its such a great shot in any technical way (it isn’t), but it captures a unique feeling. It reminds me of my own childhood on horses…and helps me to understand what’s really important (at least to me), in my life with horses today.
The photo is of my twelve year old son and his twenty-four year old horse, Henry. Long trotting down the arena on a sunny November day. I snapped the shot from my own horse, Sunny—one reason it is not all that sharp. At the time, I didn’t even realize what my kid was doing; I just thought, look how free that old horse is trotting, and clicked a photo. It was only when I looked at the picture that I realized that my son was looking down at his (and Henry’s) shadow. It just makes me smile.
Something in the captured moment speaks to me. Of an old horse who is still sound and free moving, not to mention as bombproof a riding horse as ever lived, and a young boy who is still in the magical space of childhood, both of them sharing a feeling of freedom and fun. This, exactly this, is what I meant to bring to my child through horses.
To this end I have avoided formal riding lessons, though I’m capable of teaching them and have taught others to ride. I have not steered my kid towards competing at any horse sport, though I have competed at several events myself. If my son had shown a desire to pursue and compete at something (horse oriented or not), I would have honored this with my support. But he has (so far) expressed no strong desires in this direction, and I have to admit I am relieved.
Because though I know there are positives in competition, and there can be much fun as well, I also know the negatives. I competed for many years at cutting and team roping, and I strongly believe that ALL horse sports (and every competitive sport) do, in certain ways, detract from the gentle magic that can happen when we are not focused on improving, achieving, and competing with others. When we ride for the pure fun of riding and enjoying our partnership with a good horse…well, all I can say is that a peace and tranquility become part of the experience. An acceptance of each other’s strengths and faults. A letting go and enjoying the moment. A freedom, pure and simple.
Freedom from focusing on just the right form, freedom from judging our own performance, freedom from being critical of our horse. Freedom from wondering if we are doing better” or “worse” than someone else. Freedom just to enjoy being on a horse, racing our own shadow.
For those very many of you who compete at some horse sport or other, I totally understand, after twenty years of competing myself, that one can compete on a horse and still remain centered in enjoying the moment, free from over-pressuring oneself and the horse. It can be done, and many of you do it. But there are very many who do not have the strength of mind and clarity to do this. Competition is a seductive thing—the drive to “improve” can easily become the very narrow negative need to win…to prove oneself better than others. To validate oneself in the eyes of the world. And yes, you see this in all disciplines, as far as I can tell.
What I wanted for my son was something different from this urge for achieving goals and validation. I wanted him to ride free of the need to prove anything to anyone, just enjoying the partnership with his horse. I let the horse be his teacher, as well as his friend, and I gave them many, many hours together. On the trail, at the beach, gathering cattle, in the arena. I seldom corrected my kid, or gave him direction…only when it was truly needed. And Henry has been the best teacher my little boy could ever want.
So, no, my kid, for all his hours of riding, does not have a very correct “form”. He does not know how to pick up the correct lead. (As an ex rope horse, Henry prefers the left lead, so we lope him in that direction in the arena.) My son has a good seat and knows where to be when gathering cattle, he can urge his horse through a creek or mud crossing, pop him over downed trees on the trail, and duck accurately for low, solid limbs as we trot or lope up a steep hill. He can open and close a gate from his horse. He has waded with Henry in the surf. Both he and his horse are troopers out on the trail, not intimidated by fairly daunting obstacles, and not complaining or weakening as the ride goes on for hours. In that sense, my kid is a good hand. But I’m sure he (and Henry) would not win a ribbon in any horseshow class on earth. And I’m fine with that.
Perhaps the day will come when my son will want to compete at something. Maybe he’ll wish he got started when he was young, as all very strong competitors seem to begin very young. Maybe he’ll blame me…why didn’t you get me started roping or cutting, it would have been so easy for you to do…etc And all I will be able to say is some version of this blog post. I thought I was giving you a better thing.
I’m not sure I’m right about this in any overall sense. It’s just my own inclination, and my feeling about this particular child. I’m sure if my son had been very keen to learn to rope or cut cattle, I would have taught him. If he had longed to pursue any sport, I would have helped him. And I still will, if this comes our way in the future. But for now we are still, both of us, just racing our shadows. Having fun with our horses to no purpose but the fun.
So how about you? Do some of you ride solely for fun, as we do, or are most of you happy to be focused on some goal, whether it be a fifty mile ride you want to complete, a dressage level you aspire to, or a year end buckle you are striving for? And I am happy to hear why others think that being involved in competition is the greater good. Fire away.