I had to become a woman to understand why so many little girls love horses.
I never identified with the stereotype. Growing up, I was always baffled by my friends’ love for the animals. I found horses scary, and my only trips to stables had been muddy and dirty — why would someone enjoy this so much?
I asked myself the same question when I visited DreamCatcher Farm this past week, giving me the chance to revisit my childhood prejudices.
Located in Inverary, a half-hour drive from campus, the Farm brought back this childhood association with the animals. The overwhelming smell of the barn and the mud weren’t completely unfamiliar.
But, in interacting with the students in Queen’s Equestrian Club, it became clear to me that farm life doesn’t faze the riders. What draws them to those outskirts of Kingston is their relationship with horses as they seek an escape from their day-to-day stresses.
Tara Russell, ArtSci ’13, has been riding horses since she was six years old — a hobby that she nurtures by taking lessons at Maple Lane Stables, one of the other barns in Kingston, and leasing a horse for twice-weekly free riding.
“It’s the best getaway from the school life. You just get to come out to the barn and this is completely different than being in the ghetto … it’s relaxing,” Russell, a member of the Queen’s Equestrian club, said.
Instead of thinking about school assignments and grades, these students can instead work on a different part of their lives at the stable.
It’s undeniable that the sport is dominated by females. On that Saturday alone, I couldn’t help but notice all of the people taking part in the lesson were young women.
Samantha Britton, ArtSci ’13, who’s been riding since she was nine years old, said that this is a result of the social norms surrounding the sport.
“I had a lot of female friends when I was a kid who loved horses and that encouraged my interest in horses,” Britton said.
She does insist that men take part in the sport.
Britton said some join the Equestrian Club, which organizes riding lessons on the weekends for about 40 to 50 members.
Horseback riding is also well-known for being a more expensive pursuit than many other sports.
As a member of the Queen’s recreational club, a semester of eight group lessons with about three to six people costs $272.50. It’s a price that Britton finds reasonable, however, given her love for the sport.
“People who’ve been in the sport for a long time, it’s what we consider to be a part of our identity. We are completely obsessed with horses. We choose to continue doing it because it makes us happy,” Britton said.
Even after she leaves the club this year, Britton has no intention of giving up the sport.
“I think that riding is going to be, barring any injuries or any severe money problems, a lifelong sport for me. There are ways to ride even if you’re short on money. There are always people who need horses ridden and you can help them out.”
Her love for horses comes across clearly as she interacts with Blossom, the horse she’ll be riding that day. While patting her affectionately, she explains the importance of building a cooperative and nurturing dynamic with any horse.
“You’re not going to do anything aggressive but you want them to respect you because they’re such big animals,” Britton said. “And when they respect you, they feel safe and then everyone’s happy.”
Building that connection with the animal is a complex process however. Britton took me through the many steps that riders have to take before they even get on the horse.
The whole process requires attention to detail and an understanding of what makes the horse comfortable.
Menial things can make all of the difference.
For example, the placement of the saddle is crucial. If it’s too far down the belly, it’ll prevent them from breathing properly.
It’s also important to clean out the bottom of their feet, as lodged-in rocks can hurt the hooves.
Keeping all of these steps in mind, it took at least 20 minutes to prepare the horse before the rider even got in the saddle.
The intuitive understanding and respect for the animal becomes most apparent, though, once the rider is on the horse.
It quickly becomes clear that horseback riding isn’t just about following a few simple steps — it’s about feeling out the horse and understanding which motions make it comfortable while coaxing it in the right direction.
Carol Bisaillon, owner and riding coach at DreamCatcher Farm, is an expert on this skill.
I watched as she coached the advanced class, made of members of the Queen’s Equestrian Club.
What looked like a bunch of horses walking in a circle to me was a far more detailed, nuanced performance for Bisaillon. She understood how each squeeze and each pull affected the horses differently depending on their character and training. Bisaillon graciously offered to give me a lesson of my own — something that turned out to be a little more complicated than expected.
The horse I was riding, Marshall, was tired and kept ducking his head. It made it far more difficult for me to direct him with the reins.
As the girls explained to me later, he’d already been ridden twice that day, and is trained to duck his head to rest it after the strain of exercise.
The horse intuitively knew what was best for him — I was dealing with an animal whose resolve was stronger than any of my paltry attempts at controlling him.
It was with Bisaillon’s help that I was able to control Marshall. She walked me through the motions to coax him through our simple walking and trotting routine, with the expertise of a well-trained coach.
She has been cultivating her eye and expertise for many years to teach riders how to better understand and work with horses in these sorts of circumstances.
This intuitive understanding comes from years of riding experience and a strong passion for the sport. Bisaillon, who started riding when she was eight years old, quit her corporate job to dedicate her life to running the farm.
Her passion comes from her belief that horses can have a therapeutic effect — something that she hopes will form the future backbone of her business.
Bisaillon said she believes this forms the foundation for humans’ deep love of horses. When her uncle died, it was her horse that reached out.
“As I was taking him out [for a ride], he knew,” she said. “He had his head on my shoulder the whole way out.
“When you have those underscores and you know that the horses do connect, then that really, really shows you that, okay, there is something there.”
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