If your experience of riding consists of pony rides as a kid or a rent-a-ride at an older age, you have a sense of what it feels like to sit on a large, moving object with a mind of its own. This can be scary. Controls aren’t reliable, the movement doesn’t resemble anything else you’ve dealt with in this reality, and it’s amazing how fast 15mph can feel when it’s a horse instead of motor vehicle. Even a bicycle doesn’t feel that fast at that speed—it’s not the exposed-body sensation, it’s the OMG the transportation is sentient! sensation. You feel the muscles flexing, the animal breathing, the hooves digging in and letting go, and there’s always the awareness that if the horse decides you’re not the boss of him, you can’t do anything to stop it. That way lies the legend of the Kelpie—and the treasured plot device of the runaway horse/wagon/stagecoach.
But what if the rider is experienced, and knows what to do? A runaway is still possible in certain circumstances—poorly trained horse, horse under excessive stress, horse with the brainpower of a gnat on speed—but for the most part the rider is the boss of him.
So how does it feel? First of all it’s a lot more athletic than popular (un)wisdom might indicate. You aren’t just sitting there. The easier it looks, the more muscle tone, balance, and fine motor control the rider has—and they’ll be amazingly strong. Riding tones the leg muscles like you would not believe. Quads of the gods, there. The torso doesn’t tend to tone as much, but staying with the movement, especially on a big or big-moving horse, does wonders for the abs and the muscles of the lower back. The arms as a rule are probably kept in shape by all the grooming and tack-handling and wielding of pitchfork (it takes a lot of shoveling to keep a horse stable clean)—the rider with iron arms from riding has a horse with an iron mouth and leaves a wake of disapproving riding masters behind him. The real art of riding is in the seat, not the hands.
Riding requires tone rather than hard-locked strength. The rider has to be supple, balanced, and able to stay with the horse regardless of what he may do. It’s a lot like riding an exercise ball, and in fact that’s one of the better ways to get in shape for riding. So are yoga and t’ai chi—arts that call on the practitioner to be both flexible and strong.
That flexibility happens in the full range of dimensions: forward, back, up, down, and side to side. The horse’s movement starts with the thrust of the hindlegs and the pull of the forelegs; that’s the forward-and-back sway along with the up-and-down component (minimal in the walk, notable in the trot, more elastic and bungee-like in the canter, and breathlessly wow-wow-wow in the gallop, which can really blow your hair back). But there’s also side to side: the swing of the barrel that allows free movement and softer gaits. A stiff horse is a hard, bouncy, bone-jarring ride. A supple horse is niiiiice and smooth. And a gaited horse, which is its own genetic and neurological construct, can seem to flail like an eggbeater but its back never moves; its rider can hold up a glass of champagne and not spill a drop. The gaited horse is a godsend for the rider with back problems because the up-and-down component is effectively eliminated.
The rider who has undergone long hours of practice—what the cowboys call “time and miles” and “lots of wet saddle blankets”—is very much at home in the saddle and will usually prefer riding to walking. The height of the horse holds no terrors, in or out of the saddle: they’ll see a horse not as this big huge animal but in its own context as a big horse or a small horse or something in between. They’ll adapt fairly quickly to a taller or a shorter horse than what they normally ride, and to a wider or narrower one, too: horses vary a great deal in width, from narrow enough to feel like sitting on a fence rail, all the way to so wide their hip flexors cry for mercy.
They may prefer a certain type of movement over others: from smooth and flat all the way to big, swooping, and bungee-like. My favorite has a distinctly oceanic component: long, flowing, with a sensation like riding a boat on a smooth but powerful swell. But I’ve heard others lament that “It’s toooo biggggg!” They like less air time and more ground-hugging.
No matter how big a horse’s movement is, if she’s well trained and trusts her rider—and her rider trusts her—the fear of losing control is never close enough to the surface to be an issue. As with driving a car or flying an airplane or for that matter riding a bike, accidents can happen, but the experienced rider has a whole kit full of tools for making sure they either don’t happen or are minimally damaging if they do. The confident rider manages a state of Zen calm and quiet alertness that keeps the horse calm as well, and a well-trained horse can induce this in a timid or inexperienced rider—that’s the value of a schoolmaster horse for the student of riding. For the adrenaline junkie, a fast, spirited horse is just the thing. The more prudent rider likes a calmer mount, but there’s a difference between a calm mind and a deadhead. Some horses are spirited but not crazy or spooky; they love to go, have lots of energy, but don’t waste effort being silly.
Riding for the experienced rider, in short, is very much of a comfort zone. A long or hard ride can still cause physical pain and stress, but like other athletes, riders can condition themselves to quite a high level. The riders who do hundred-milers in under 16 hours are as awesomely fit as their horses—they’re the marathon runners of the sport. They will even dismount and trot along with their horses on challenging terrain, and then remount and carry on—all day, all night, for as long as it takes.
Judith Tarr’s first novel, The Isle of Glass, appeared in 1985. Since then she’s written novels and shorter works of historical fiction and historical fantasy and epic fantasy and space opera and contemporary fantasy, many of which have been reborn as ebooks. She has even written a primer for writers: Writing Horses: The Fine Art of Getting It Right. She has won the Crawford Award, and been a finalist for the World Fantasy Award and the Locus Award. She lives in Arizona with an assortment of cats, a blue-eyed dog, and a herd of Lipizzan horses.