In my previous post, I mentioned some challenges of staying in the saddle as a backyard horse owner. Definitely among them is the issue of riding alone. While some prefer the experience of riding solo, I venture to guess that many more find it difficult. If you want to ride at home, think about how you can either avoid riding alone in the first place or increase your personal skills/focus when you do chose to ride alone. The following is a list of ideas for tackling this very real problem. I employ many of these ideas in an ever rotating combination.
1. Find a riding buddy
Are you open to keeping a friend’s horse at your home so you can ride together? Can a friend trailer his horse over to your place or you theirs? If you have a friend who is willing to ride your horse, can you ride “together” by taking turns- you ride your horse the first half-hour while your friends rides the next half-hour?
2. Find eyes on the ground
If it is within your budget and available in your area, can you arrange for a riding instructor or trainer to come give you lessons on your property? Can you trailer your horse off your property to riding lessons or clinics? What about asking family or friends to come watch you ride on occasion? Even non-riders can give you useful insights into what they are seeing during your ride. That person could also take photos or video clips that you could use to track and improve your riding. Not to mention, who doesn’t like to have a million photos of their horses! You might even be able to rope someone into accompanying you on foot or on bicycle for a trail ride. My husband and I spent a memorable Thanksgiving Day when we trailered over to a local park to do just that. He walked while I rode. Super fun!
3. Create a virtual safety net
Having your cell phone accessible while you ride is a first measure. This means having the phone in a pocket or safely attached to your body with a phone holder (if the phone is in a saddle bag and your horse runs off, your phone is no longer accessible to you, right?). Keep in mind though that if you are unconscious or injured in such a way that you can’t read/tap/type or the phone gets damaged, you will need a back-up plan. Can you check in with someone by phone before and after your ride to make sure you got on and off safely? Something else to consider is an Apple watch. The Apple Watch Series 4 or later has fall detection that will text you if it senses you are still moving after impact. If it detects no movement after one minute, it contacts emergency services on your behalf. I don’t have an Apple Watch yet, but that feature looks mighty promising to me.
4. Wear a helmet and/or safety vest
I personally prefer to wear a helmet. I wear one if I am riding alone. I wear one if I am riding with other people even if I am the only one wearing a helmet. I have never worn a safety vest but am interested in trying one if the prices become more accessible in the future.
5. Start off with groundwork
Depending upon the particular horse or the environment, I might decide to do an entire groundwork repertoire of exercises that I have learned in natural horsemanship circles. Sometimes I might do some longing. In other cases, maybe just leading my horse once around the riding arena may give me the indication that he or she is “with me” and ready to mount.
6. Do more at the walk
You risk injury anytime you ride- at any gait- even while mounting, even at the halt, even while backing up, even at the walk. I am guessing that in general, though, your average rider who struggles with nerves will feel more confident at the walk than at faster gaits. You have a better chance of having a successful ride when you are feeling confident (my previous post mentioned the circle of anxiety that can envelop the horse and rider when the rider starts off nervous). So don’t feel sheepish about mostly or even exclusively walking. There is quite the variety of things you can do with your horse just at the walk- combinations of walk, halt, back transitions patterns that incorporate turns and bending- following lines and making square corners- shortening and lengthening of stride. You can still improve your horse’s way of going at the walk, positively affecting their balance, how they carry themselves, their musculature and so on. For more great ideas download this “Walk Work Outs” PDF by dressage rider Jec Aristotle Ballou!
7. Incorporate lateral movements, cones and obstacles into your rides
If you don’t know how to ask your horse to do movements like leg yield, turn on forehand, turn on the hindquarters and sidepassing, consider spending the money for training/lessons so you can expand your toolbox. Done correctly, those exercises help build you skills as a rider, your horse’s balance/self carriage and allow you to communicate more precisely with your horse. They are a great addition to that walk work with your horses that we just talked about. On a similar note, one of my favorite things to do is set out cones. I use them to mark out patterns while I am riding. It is so easy for me to get unfocused or start to worry about something when I am just going around the arena or down the trail. If I have some patterns in my mind and some markers already layed out, I can use those to keep myself and my horse interested in where we are going and less likely to zero in on random spooky stuff off in the distance. Same goes for obstacles. I love setting out tarps, groundpoles, gates, etc . . . I find it super fun and engaging to set up tasks for me and my horse to accomplish.
8. Keep your horses at home and ride somewhere else on someone else’s horses
You may find yourself wanting to ride but have nothing but retired or otherwise unrideable horses in your backyard. Or maybe you really do want to ride your own horse, but you just can’t see yourself riding solo. By all means, get out there and find your riding tribe!
9. Attend clinics with your horse
Riding lessons are typically the way that we improve our skills. While riding lessons generally are short in duration and spread out through time, clinics allow for in-depth learning opportunities. They can engender a faster or a different type of growth than lessons alone. They can be expensive, but I am glad I have stretched to attend clinics from time to time. I particularly learned the value of attending clinics with my horse Bear. During our first years together, I had a series of very embarrassing, very public episodes with him when we trailered off my property. I became downright fearful of taking him anywhere and thought seriously about selling him. But Bear had a lot of really nice qualities. And I had a nagging sensation that the problem was mine and not his. So on the recommendation of a friend, I signed up for a three-day natural horsemanship clinic with Ed Chambers Horsemanship in Roachdale, Indiana. The clinic helped me to see what I needed to do differently. I learned that we could in fact work well together when I was more active with my riding and displayed more confidence. The clinic activities allowed me to practice supporting Bear during one sticky moment after another in a busy environment. I am happy to say that Bear and I went on to have many fun riding adventures after the clinic. He is now retired, and I anticipate celebrating our 15 year anniversary and his 25th birthday this Spring. Not every clinic that I have attended has been that good a fit, but I now know the powerful, positive changes that can manifest from clinic participation.
10. Give yourself permission to change
We develope and age. Our horses develope and age. Enthusiasm can wax and wane. Preferences can be fluid. Don’t let what you used to do or used to want to do keep you from doing what you can do or want to do now. Remember that- gasp!-you might even decide at some point not to ride at all. Some people chose to put riding aside while they are pregnant, pursuing a career or attending to family obligations. Some might decide that after an accident that the risks of riding outweigh the rewards. Right now, I absolutely want to ride, crave riding and get sad/cranky if I don’t ride with some frequency. And yet after years of judging others for not riding, I have now lived long enough to realize that I might not always decide to ride either- double gasp! I have learned to reserve the right to change my mind in the future. Likewise, I will hold space for you as you navigate your own decisions about riding.
I have more to say on this topic of horsekeeping without riding, but I will save that for a future post. In the mean time, if you are still inclined to ride, may you enjoy happy trails!