The horse who taught me to ride

Watching my son start horsebackriding lessons is bringing back all kinds of memories for me, some of the best and most poignant memories of my life. I was one of those seriously horse-crazy girls. (Still am.) I kept a journal as a teenager, but is it full of teen angst and drama about boyfriends, girlfriends, etc.? Well–there’s some of that. But mostly it’s full of horses.

I ignored most of what was going on around me at school and filled 10 notebooks with my thoughts on individual horses. (I knew a lot of them–I’ve ridden at least a hundred different horses.) I remember more horses by name than students by name from my high school.

Want to see the horse who taught me how to ride? He’s the white horse carrying Willie Nelson in the first 30 seconds of this video:

The horse’s name is Aardvark. He is half Arabian, half quarter horse, and I think he was about 14 years old when this video was shot. Willie Nelson does not own him–he borrowed him from the stable where I rode in order to shoot this video.

Although Aardvark looks white, he is actually a paint. You can tell when you give him a bath. Then you can see his markings–the black skin and the pink skin underneath his white coat. But the part of his coat that used to be dark has faded to make him uniformly white.

Aardvark was the stable’s best lesson horse. All beginning riders rode him first, because he was trustworthy and had good gaits. He could be a challenge, though. Aardvark was a dominant horse in the equine pecking order, and for some reason this stable liked to keep several horses loose in the riding arena. If a rider didn’t keep a good hold on Aardvark, he would go after those horses–lunge at them and bite them.

This was not truly dangerous for the rider, but it was frightening, especially the very first time I was on him. I was a complete newbie, and my horse was out of control! Every time Aardvark lunged at a horse, the teacher would scold me and tell me I needed to take a firmer grip on him, that it was my responsibility to keep him under control. In a way, they really tossed us into the deep end at that stable. But I learned quickly to take responsibility for my horse and to make sure he knew I was boss. It was a lesson that served me well for all my years of riding.

Aardvark was an excellent show horse who knew more about showing than most of his riders. Beginners could just sit on his back and come out of the ring with a ribbon. He was so smart you didn’t even have to cue him. He would hear the announcer call for a trot or canter and break into the correct gait himself. AMAZING horse, truly one of a kind.

I tear up watching that video. Aardvark is dead now. He foundered at around age 20 and was retired to pasture. His condition ultimately became so painful he had to be put down. I will never forget him. He was also my mother’s favorite horse. She is dead now too. So my Aardvark memories are bittersweet.

Finding a good riding stable is tough. I’ve found one I think I like, but we’ll have to see how things work out. The problem with a lot of them is they use cheap, crappy horses to teach beginners. The reason that doesn’t work well is that cheap horses have poor gaits and are actually harder to ride than good horses. They have poor mouths and don’t respond to rider cues. Their trots and canters are so bouncy that neophytes struggle to learn to sit them. How can someone learn when the horse is hard to ride and won’t respond to signals?

Aardvark was a valuable show horse. Most stables won’t put beginners on a horse of that quality, but the stable I rode at did, because they knew that was the best way for new riders to learn, on a quality horse with good paces, a good mouth, and extensive training. Aardvark taught me to ride in just a few lessons, and I never looked back.

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6 Responses to The horse who taught me to ride

  1. I am not at all a horse person, but everything you’ve said makes a lot of sense. The few times I’ve been on a horse have been either terrifying or humiliating, neither of which gave me a desire to learn. I hope you find a good place for your boys to learn. Horses are amazing animals and I think it’s good when humans learn to understand them.

    • Amy Raby says:

      Thanks! Yeah, I think there are a lot of stables that don’t provide an ideal learning environment, for various reasons, most of them economic. Unfortunately, most inexpensive horses are not ideal learning animals for beginners. I hope I’ve found a good place for Sean. If not, we’ll move on and keep looking!

  2. Jessi Gage says:

    Ah, your post brings back memories for me. My most memorable horse was Merlin, a 16.3 hand thoroughbred. For non horse peeps, that’s a very big horse. Merlin was so dark brown he was almost black but he had some dun on his nose and ankles. He was a stunning horse, and a fine jumper, but I looked utterly ridiculous on him. I’m only 5’2″ and look much more congruous on a 15-hander.
    My first show on Merlin was a disaster. My lessons were always with one or two other riders, always on horses Merlin stabled with and knew. Well, in the show ring, Merlin thought he was on a race track. He passed all the other horses in ever gait even though my hands were cramping from trying to hold him back. He totally dominated the ring in the speed category, but unfortubnately, speed wasn’t one of the criteria. I didn’t win anything that show, but Merlin seemed to have a blast. I don’t begrudge him the chance to stretch his legs and show off. In fact, toward the end of the event, I just gave him the reins and let him have a ball. Cantering on a thoroughbred who’s making an ass out of himself but having a great time is one of the most fun things I’ve ever done. I didn’t show him again but, he continued to be my favorite in lessons.

    • Amy Raby says:

      That’s a hilarious story! I can just picture you on that gigantic horse galloping around the ring. I mostly rode Arabians and Arabian crosses, as well as a huge assortment of low-quality summer camp horses: quarter horses, Appaloosas, Paints, various ponies, mules, a standardbred. On only one occasion did I ride a thoroughbred, and I remember feeling distinctly uncomfortable at the horse’s size. Arabians are small horses, which was part of what I liked about them–being a smallish person myself, they felt like my size of horse. I do like how spirited thoroughbreds are, though. In that, they are much like Arabians.

  3. Awesome story, Amy. I don’t recall the first horse I rode. I was three, and the point then seemed mainly not to fall off. But when I got a little older, we went to a new stable and I got to ride a thoroughbred named Jetta, who was very smart and a bit willful. You didn’t have to say trot, you just spelled it, even in a whisper, and she was off. Later, I rode Hot Stuff who was sweet and had a fondness for sharing lemonade. It’s been a long time since I’ve ridden, but I have so many fond memories.

    • Amy Raby says:

      It seems like everyone who rides, or rode in their childhood, has fond memories of the experience! Thoroughbreds are great because they are spirited animals with a lot of go. You learn fast on an animal like that! By necessity…

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