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"Just" a pleasure rider

From: Catherine

Dear Jessica, I am a 46-year-old woman who is a big fan of yours. "Riding for the Rest of Us" is next to my bed, and it is my favorite bedtime read. Your good sense and easy style calms me down after a rough day at work.

I have my own horse at last, after learning to ride at age 42 thanks to you, because of the encouragement in your book. Riding is the joy of my life and my horse is the love of my life.

The barn has always been my "safe place" where I can forget about the annoyances and frustrations of my job and just relax and be the person I want to be, with my beloved horse. But it is getting more and more difficult to relax at the barn, and I don't know if this is my fault or if it is really because the atmosphere here has changed.

When I first came to this barn I was very excited at the thought of having friends to ride with. The other boarders were mostly older riders like myself who just had always wanted to have the chance to ride and possibly even own a horse. We were from different backgrounds but very much alike in our love for horses and riding, all of us had grown up dreaming about the Black Stallion and My Friend Flicka! My life's ambition was and is to learn to ride, and then become a true horseman.

But in the last year, the others have changed or maybe I have changed. I am not very happy right now. My riding is continuing to improve slowly, I took your advice and am doing yoga three nights a week and tai chi daily, and I know I am riding better, I certainly am feeling more balanced and much more coordinated! But the other boarders are not "with me" on this, they think these are silly and unncessary practices, and the way to get better at riding is to ride. They do not understand why I am happy to go to my exercise classes and then come out to the barn and enjoy a long leisurely ride on my horse. Sometimes all we do is walk, but I talk to my horse and sing to him and we enjoy each other's company.

I am getting to my question! The problem is that the other boarders in the last two years have become very interested in showing and competing their horses, they spend a lot of time discussing the competitions and the judges and looking through catalogs and buying things that they need(?) for competitions. At first, they tried to get me to do this with them, and then they began to leave me out of the discussions and the weekend breakfasts and lunches out. This is okay since they spend almost all of the time talking about competitions anyway, and I have no interest in that. I wish them good luck and I wish that they could just let me do the things I like to do. Most of them have sold their old horses and bought new horses in the last year, to be more competitive. I thought it was sort of sad they didn't want to keep their old horses, but it wasn't my business and I didn't think it was a problem, and it didn't occur to me that they might think my keeping my horse would be a problem, but apparently it is!

In the last several weeks, two of the women I considered to be at least casual friends of mine have come to me (separately) and asked me if I plan to stay at the barn. Apparently I don't "fit in" now that everyone else is competition-oriented. Also, another woman I thought was my "best friend" of the group asked me if I would like to go to competitions with them this summer, and if I was planning to get a new horse, and when I said "No, thank you" and "NO I'm not getting a new horse", she told me that she was sad to see that I was "giving up on myself" and had "low self-esteem". I was too shocked to say anything so I just stood there and stared at her. Since then she has barely talked to me and ALL THREE of these rider have said, directly to me or in my hearing, that I am "just a pleasure rider". I do ride for pleasure, riding and owning a horse has been my lifelong dream and I am very happy to spend time brushing and riding my horse every day. I thought that the other riders here were like me, but apparently not.

Jessica, these are mature (I thought) adult women like myself, what are they thinking? Isn't it possible that competition might NOT be everyone's goal? I don't think my self-esteem is low, and I certainly haven't "given up on myself", but it's hard for me to keep my perspective when I hear these things from people I like and I thought liked me too.

So what I want to know is first, am I really doing something so horrible by wanting to remain a pleasure rider? Is it so awful to be a pleasure rider? They are acting as though we were all invited to a wedding and I was insisting on wearing dirty jeans! Does not wanting to compete make me a second class rider? Why is it wrong to ride for pleasure? I love my horse, I love riding, I try to improve, and I am, or at least I was, happy. What is so terrible about pleasure riders? Why do people say "pleasure rider" with a sneer? I'm worried that I will be asked to leave the barn because I don't compete. Do you think this could happen? This wasn't in your book. Please can you clear this up for me?


Hi Catherine! You have two different concerns here - one is the reason "pleasure rider" is often used as a pejorative term, and the other is about the nature of changes at boarding barns. I'll take them one at a time.

First, you must know, and I'm sure you DO know, that there is nothing terrible or even slightly bad about riding for pleasure. There is nothing at all wrong with anyone who takes good care of her horse, works to improve her riding skills, and takes pleasure in the time she spends with her horse.

There IS something wrong with anyone who sneers at anyone who takes good care of her horse, works to improve her riding skills, and takes pleasure in the time she spends with her horse.

The term "pleasure rider", like the term "recreational rider", should mean exactly what it means in your case - a rider who enjoys and cares for her horse, and rides for the sheer pleasure of riding, not in a quest for ribbons and trophies.

The problem is that the term "pleasure rider" is also sometimes used to refer to those riders who aren't interested in learning more about riding or improving their riding skills, and who don't care about their horses - the kind of people who don't consider their horses' comfort, and who want to gallop the first mile out and the last mile in. ;-) It's unfortunate that the term is used in this way. I think "pleasure rider" probably began to take on a pejorative meaning when riders used it as an excuse for not knowing or caring about the effect their riding was having on their horses - many such riders describe themselves as "pleasure riders" - as in "Oh, no, I've never had lessons, I'm just a pleasure rider", or "I don't worry about all that lead and diagonal stuff, I'm just a pleasure rider."

I wish they would choose another term. ;-) In fact, riders like that are just bad, ignorant riders.... and there are many such riders to be found at competitions! It's not a question of "pleasure" versus "competitive" riders, it's a question of good riders versus bad riders. GOOD riders care about their horses - about the horses' soundness and comfort and, yes, about the horses' enjoyment of the ride. It makes no difference whether the ride is a gallop over jumps at a competitive venue or a quiet stroll along the path that goes around the back field at the boarding stable.

If your interest is in good riding and horsemanship, then you are likely to make riding a pleasure for yourself AND for your horse, which is as it should be. If you take that attitude into competition, that too can be a pleasure for you and for your horse. I'd like to see ALL riders become actively interested in improving their own skills and increasing their horses' enjoyment of being ridden. There should be no "just" about being a pleasure rider - everyone should be that kind of pleasure rider. ;-)

However, the reality is that you may find it practical to say "I'm working hard to improve my riding, but I don't compete", or "I ride for my own enjoyment, and I'm always striving to improve" which will save you offering virtually the same explanation AFTER you say "I'm a pleasure rider". Explaining the meaning of the phrase to your fellow boarders probably won't help you much right now, so I'll give you some general advice on dealing with those who sneer.

First, ignore them if you can. They're not sneering at you personally, they're sneering at some idea they have about riding for pleasure being inferior to riding in competition. It's a silly idea, but you're not likely to be able to argue them out of it. They'll have to mature as riders and find out for themselves that at the end of the day, the things that matter are good horsemanship and good riding, not labels and ribbons.

When riders become obsessed with competition, as your friends at the barn seem to have done, they can sometimes forget that competition is NOT the be-all and end-all of riding. Competition is fun for those who enjoy it, but it's by no means the POINT of riding. You know this, and if any of the other boarders are destined to become horsemen, they will figure it out for themselves eventually. Don't try to force the issue. Right now, they're not ready to understand.

I expect the other boarders are just full of themselves right now because they're new to the world of competition and very excited about the fact that they have new horses and they're participating. If they make comments to you about your being "just" a pleasure rider, you can smile and ignore them. If you really want to answer them, you can say "I think it's very important that riding be pleasurable for both horse and rider - that's why I'm working so hard to improve my riding, and that's why I'm taking yoga and tai chi classes to improve my balance and coordination and flexibility!" But think before you answer - not just about whether you'll get your message across, but about how a "discussion" like this is going to affect YOUR enjoyment of that day and that ride.

If you can make your point gently and without becoming agitated, then put the matter behind you and go out and enjoy your ride, good for you. If you know that engaging in a verbal confrontation is going to ruin the evening's ride for you, don't do it! Your first responsibility is to your horse; your second responsibility is to yourself. You're not responsible for educating your fellow boarders - and in any case, how likely is it that they'll listen?

I know that the other boarders' attitude of "we compete, and you're JUST a pleasure rider" sounds as though they think they're better than you, and perhaps they do. Perhaps, in some ways, YOU also think you are better than they are - certainly you feel that your priorities are better than theirs. (I agree with you.) But nobody is going to convert anybody if there's animosity between you and your fellow boarders, you'll just waste time and energy contradicting one another. Instead, why not try to create an atmosphere in which BOTH sides have some respect for one another?

You have several options when it comes to "coping strategies".

1. You can continue to do what you're doing - enjoying your horse in the way you've always enjoyed him, ignoring and/or avoiding the other boarders and their attitudes. You'll have to decide whether this is the best way to "ride things out" - or whether it's likely to make you and the other boarders feel increasingly estranged from one another.

2.You can confront the other boarders and try to argue the point that "pleasure rider" doesn't mean "bad rider" or "inferior rider who isn't good enough to compete". Again, you'll need to use your good judgement here - is confrontation the answer?

3. You can accept the offer your friend made, and accompany the group to one of those summer competitions. I think this would be worth a try. Who knows, you might enjoy it - your horse might enjoy it - and at the end of the day, you might have discovered yet ANOTHER way for you and your horse to enjoy one another's company. Or, you might not enjoy it very much, in which case you could say "No, thank you" the next time, and leave your horse at home.

Even if you find that you don't enjoy riding in the competition, you may find that you enjoy cheering on the others. Either way, you'll show them that you aren't rejecting or "disrespecting" their choice, you simply prefer other ways of spending time with your horse. Have you considered the possibility that, simply because you haven't jumped on the competition bandwagon with them, your fellow boarders may feel that YOU are rejecting THEM and their values and priorities?

4. You might tell the other boarders how much you feel yoga and tai chi are doing for your riding - and invite them to come with you to the next class. If their sneers are directed at an entirely different kind of "pleasure rider" - the uncaring kind I mentioned above - then they might benefit from a reminder that you are an entirely different sort of "pleasure rider". If they understand that ALL of you are trying to improve, they may realize that you have a lot in common with each other. If talking to the other boarders this way is the method you choose, I suggest that you use the technique successfully employed by many a mother and pre-school teacher: bring a tasty snack, and bring enough for everyone. It's very hard for people to sneer or be rude - or even to feel superior -when their mouths are stuffed with the brownies you brought. Plus, they're unlikely to walk away until the treats are gone, and it's difficult to talk with a full mouth, so you'll have a good chance to be heard, and you won't even have to raise your voice. ;-)

As for leaving the barn, that seems extreme. If you're really worried that you might be asked to leave, talk to the barn owner or manager - and ASK. If there's a big change in the wind - if the barn is going to become a different sort of establishment, managed and run differently, then this is something the owner/manager will be able to tell you. If s/he DOES say "Yes, we're going to become a high-power competition barn, with required weekly lessons and shows every weekend", then you might consider taking your horse somewhere quieter and more suited to the sort of riding you enjoy most. But I really don't think this is likely to happen. If the owner has been in the boarding-barn business for some time, s/he will probably be able to reassure you that regardless of the age of the boarders, most boarding barns are periodically swept by one craze or another, and eventually the excitement dies down - or a new craze takes over.

It's true that sometimes boarding barns change style and focus, for example, going from "primarily a boarding barn" to "primarily a lesson barn", or going from a hunter orientation to a dressage one. Sometimes barns DO change over time, but a good barn should have room for its good boarders even if many of the other boarders have started going to a lot of competitions, or have changed their style of riding. Whether the conditions and atmosphere at the barn will make some boarders feel out of place... is something that only those boarders will be able to determine.

Boarding barns are rather like apartment buildings. At some, people barely know one another by sight. At others, the residents are friendly, have parties together, schedule joint activities, look after one another's children, and so on. Over time, the population can change, and sometimes a big shift in population can make one or more residents feel that they no longer "fit in". If everyone else wants complete silence after nine at night, which is just when you want to crank your stero system and dance, or if everyone else has small children and you find that you're keeping your windows closed even on hot days because you can't bear the constant shrieking from the central playground area, then yes, it may be a good idea to move. Similar situations can arise at boarding barns.

I'm sorry you're getting sneers from the other boarders. People can be very scathing about things they don't do themselves and don't understand. It's not appropriate or courteous of the others to trivialize your enjoyment of your horse just because you're not interested in competition. But don't make the mistake of trivializing their interest in competition, either - they're pursuing what THEY enjoy most, just as you are. Right now, you're the courteous, tolerant one - don't change. ;-) Let them rise to YOUR standard of behaviour.

In the meantime, just go right on enjoying your rides and improving your skills. Learning to ride WELL is a lifelong process, and horsemanship has to be your standard as well as your goal. Oh, and go right on talking and singing to your horse! HE isn't going to sneer, and it's his opinion that should matter most to you. If riding is truly a pleasure for you and your horse, then you're my kind of rider, no matter what kind of riding you do. ;-)


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