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To Ride or Not To Ride

To Ride or Not To Ride

By Betsy Kelleher

Facing the possibility of never riding a horse again is more than depressing. It’s like facing the final fact of human mortality! My husband’s back is the problem, not mine, but he’s my riding buddy! I understand his depression; I’d be depressed too, if I really couldn’t ride again!

Russ has ridden Sammy for two years now and he came off once. We were riding at Pere Marquette. I was in the lead, and Lady jumped a creek. Sammy decided to jump, too. Russ was caught off guard, since Sammy usually walks through the creeks. I remember the noise behind me and how I felt as Sammy rushed by me with Russ coming off. I hollered “whoa” and Lady stopped but Sammy didn’t. Soon after that, I started working with Sammy to teach him a stronger understanding of the word “whoa.” Sammy will be nine years old this year. With a history of field trails, he loves to go and he is a bit excitable. Not that bad, really, but he is not a calm horse and his tense, eager nature is just enough to add to the insecurity of a bad back.

After the pain Russ has felt since unloading 25 bales of hay in October, he is gun shy. Three shots in the spine greatly lessened the pain, but he would rather not go through that again! He doesn’t want to take chances, and his doctor isn’t encouraging him to get back on a horse. If he came off, it could easily be a major problem!

Russ wants a different horse. I understand what he’s going through. I’ve seen how depressed Russ has been recently, and I know he needs time to work through this situation. He’s looking for a better guarantee that he won’t get hurt. But maybe no horse can offer a firm guarantee. Horses do have emotions and feelings and reactions, and some are definitely safer than others. We do all we can to control circumstances and prevent problems. As we learn to handle horses, we should become safer riders. But now and then, something comes along that we don’t anticipate. We have to determine within ourselves what is important and what we want to do with our lives. Sometimes we need to learn different methods.

Just in case, I am looking for an older, calm, smooth-gaited gelding, not too tall, safe for anyone! In the process, I’ve found lots of encouragement for Russ. I learned about a woman named Gay Cichowski who was in an accident ten years ago and was told not to ride again. But she is riding. Her website is and she breeds Tennessee Walkers, of course. On her website, she says it is by God’s grace that she is able to enjoy life after her injury.

I’ve had an e-mail friendship for the past year with a breeder of gaited horses in Missouri, who has what I think may be the perfect horse for Russ (but he’s young, he’s not cheap, and he’s a long ways away)! Rosie King herself has had a disk removed and has degenerative arthritis in her spine. She can’t lift anything heavy, just like Russ, and she has to be very careful. She e-mailed: “It seems that horseback riding has always made me feel good and has never hurt my back, and I really feel it helps it.” Rosie and Dan have horses for sale at

I know in my heart that a different horse might be better for Russ. But that would mean paying board for four horses when we only need two, or getting rid of one we already have! And that is the biggest dilemma of all!

I can’t sell Traveller; I still hope he will be ride-able again. After his battle with EPM last year, he has had his ups and downs. He was energetic and stable enough for a good ride just before Thanksgiving, but acted wobbly and lethargic in January. He now seems good again, and I rode him a few times, briefly, in February. Traveller is about as safe as they come and he would be perfect for Russ to ride at a walk, even though he isn’t gaited, if we could count on his health! I recently got Russ to ride Traveller in the indoor arena a few minutes, for a start. At least Russ was able to get back on a horse (first time since October) and remember how it feels and to see how it affected his back. Why buy another horse before we know he can ride again? I don’t feel confident, however, that Traveller could be loaded in a trailer and ridden for an hour or more on the trail.

I don’t want to push Russ to get back on Sammy unless he feels ready. Horses feel our fears and their reactions only add to the problem. I can only help to make the circumstances as safe as possible. I have been riding both Sammy and Lady, perhaps trying to decide which one to keep. I may not have a choice. Lady actually gives a smoother and easier ride than Sammy, but she has her moods and she needs a firm hand. Russ is not that kind of rider. Lady has shown fear of traffic, tight places sometimes bother her, and she is better with another horse than alone. We sold Lady once before then went all the way to Kentucky to get her back—but I didn’t feel she was in the right place and I had to rescue her! This time, I hope to find someone who can love her as much as I do and who doesn’t mind her bossy ways.

If we find the perfect safe horse for Russ, I’ll ride Sammy or Lady and sell the other one. I love them both and it will be difficult no matter what. I’m also looking for any help I can get for Traveller.

I know there are other horse owners with similar concerns. You have horses with problems, and maybe you can’t even determine what the problem is! It may be a training problem, or a physical or emotional thing. It may be health. Vets can’t always make a firm diagnosis or offer the perfect solution, and healing, sorry to say, isn’t a gift for everyone.

Whenever we face changes in lifestyle, acceptance is often difficult at first. But changes come whether we like it or not. We change as we age, as we encounter obstacles and as we learn and adapt. It’s difficult to give up something that has meant a lot to us. Sometimes we have no choice and we have to learn to build positive attitudes. Sometimes we have choices—decisions to make—and I think that can be even more difficult!

Change provides new opportunities to learn and grow. Change can make us see life from a different perspective. Sometimes change is necessary for God to work in our lives. God works in different ways with each person and we can’t judge how He is working with someone else. It takes time to understand God’s will and to accept it and to trust it. It’s good that God has patience to help us work through our reactions to change. He has His reasons for allowing the things that happen.

I could wish that Russ would just learn to have better control of a horse as a rider. But I can’t change him any easier than I can change Sammy’s anxieties or Lady’s bossy nature!

Seeing what Russ is going through, I am more consistent with exercise to strengthen my own back! I know how important exercise and flexibility can be. We do our best to avoid accidents, but the very meaning of that word tells us we can’t! I'm working to “bombproof” our horses as much as possible.

Aging is a natural process. Our bodies are temporary fixtures and even when we take good care of them, they will someday wear out. But God has promised to one day give us a new body that will never die. I know that such a belief is not accepted by everyone, but I’m glad to be certain of that belief for myself.

Although human life changes and ages, God’s love and power and His plan for our lives never change (See Hebrews 13:8). We can always count on His help and His Presence to get us through. As I see it, it’s best to put everything in His hands. We must pray about the situation, and seek God’s guidance and continue to pray and seek and wait until He shows the right way to go. Our dependence on God, even as we do our best, is the final success.

We are what we are, just as our horses are what they are. We can only be stronger, better, wiser or calmer when we depend wholly on Someone greater (See John 15:5 and Philippians 4:13). Just as we teach our horses to depend on us, God wants us to learn to depend on Him. And to all who fully depend on Him, God gives His Spirit within us to supply our need.

(Originally published in the March 2005 issue of the Illinois Horse Network)


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