(by Sally Harris, Director of Marketing, retired)
In the spring of 2010 I began volunteering at Manes & Motions, a therapeutic riding center. I enjoy volunteering; I’m a firm believer in animal assisted therapy and I’ve had a lifelong fascination with horses so it seemed like a good fit. The riders who participate in the Manes program are individuals living with physical, emotional or cognitive special needs. My role at Manes was being a side walker – I walked alongside the horse and supported the rider if necessary. I assisted the instructor during the lesson by repeating directions to the rider and helping them perform the exercise. The riders are an inspirational group – they work hard during their lessons and their progress is a joy to behold for all of us. After two years of volunteering it occurred to me that if I was really going to be an asset to the riders I should have a better understanding of what the instructors were asking them to do. I repeated directions like “keep your heels down, bend your knees, balance, hold your reins like this etc.” but I had very little firsthand knowledge of riding. I had taken lessons off and on throughout my adulthood but never consistently or long enough to be of real value. So when Manes offered their volunteers a 6 week session of riding lessons I jumped at the opportunity. I wanted to continue lessons after the 6 week course ended so I asked my instructor to recommend a stable. She suggested the barn where she boarded her horse. I started weekly lessons in November of 2012 and gradually increased to twice a week. In February 2015 I started leasing a horse and riding 3 times a week. Six months later I purchased Marsh – a 7 year old Appendix (thoroughbred/quarter horse cross). I joked that after 55 years I finally got the pony I wanted for my 5th birthday!
I’m still very much a newbie at riding. Most of the other riders at the barn with equivalent experience are between 7-9 years old.
I’ve learned a lot in 3-1/2 years and not just about riding itself but more about riding as an analogy for life.
- Ride the Horse – this is what my instructor yells at me when Marsh and I aren’t necessarily on the same page. It means I should take what he’s giving me and work with it. Certainly that applies to many instances in our lives – relationships, both personal and professional, tasks and responsibilities, the weather – you name it.
- Keep the horse between your legs – it may sound a little silly, after all where else would the horse be? What it means is to stay balanced. If the horse is swerving in one direction push your leg against that side; if he swerves in the other direction, push on that side. You’re constantly adjusting your position to keep him in line and keep yourself balanced. Life is all about constantly adjusting to change and trying to remain balanced.
- Collection – Collection is a dressage term. Dressage is the fancy style of riding you’ll see in the Equestrian Olympics. Collection is when the horse stretches and arches his neck, takes shorter steps without sacrificing tempo. It’s very pretty when performed well. I’m still working on it. In terms of real life, collection can mean collecting our thoughts, taking a moment, putting ourselves together, recharging our batteries. The horse can still walk, trot and canter without being collected but with collection it’s a beautiful sight. We can all perform our jobs, live our lives etc without being collected but when we’re running on all cylinders, that’s beautiful too!
- Connection – State in which there is no blockage, break, or slack in the circuit that joins horse and rider into a single, harmonious, elastic unit. It means being in control but also giving and taking.
- Trust – I’m a better rider today than I was 6 months ago because I trust Marsh. Sure he’s a 1200 lb animal with a mind of his own but I trust him to respond to my commands, I trust him to keep me safe. And I trust myself as a rider. I’ve overcome fears and insecurities; I’ve met challenges head on. Each time my instructor asks me to do something I’ve never done before my first reaction may be “are you insane?” but I also trust her not to put me in an unsafe situation. The same way we trust each other at work to have each other’s backs, to help us out when we need a hand. Or the way we trust our own judgement and talents.
- Enjoy the Ride – When I first started riding my main goal was to stay on the horse. Spectators often commented that I looked like I was in pain because I was concentrating so hard on not falling off. My body was rigid which made me bounce higher which made my horse go faster which made me more rigid… My instructor told me to “breathe, relax, enjoy the ride,” after all, she said, “What’s the point of being on the horse if you’re not enjoying the ride?”
After 26 years of service I am leaving my full time position this July. At a recent Women’s Leadership conference the last speaker spoke about her struggles as a leader, about accepting and adapting to changes and making difficult choices and how following our dreams is challenging but worth it. In conclusion she gave us this piece of advice: “Find a job – cause, activity, whatever – working with people who will share your passion and fill your life with joy.” It was a great message and it held great personal meaning for me. I have been very fortunate to work at a job I love, with people I like and respect. I have had so many wonderful experiences and my life has been filled with joy.
I have definitely enjoyed the ride. Thanks to all of you who have been part of the journey.