Back in the Saddle: A Guest Post by Lori Heath

The roommate pairing process for your freshman year of college is a real roll of the dice. As an out-of-state student, who knew not a soul at Mizzou, I prayed and prayed that my roommate could be a true friend.

The match was a perfect one. I was paired with Lori - a friendly, outgoing girl from North Carolina. We connected instantly, sharing a love of writing, drawing, film and music. But otherwise, we are completely opposite. Lori is an energetic, funny extrovert with accents and comedy bits to spare. I'm a reserved, introspective introvert who can be an extrovert for about two hours at a time... three hours max!

Lori and I remain dear, dear friends today. (If I'm going to walk 9 miles across Manhattan and Brooklyn in a single day, it will be with this beautiful, adventurous spirit.) Lori gives those in her circle a powerful, loyal kind of love that I'm blessed to know. I suppose you could say that Lori has a heart the size of the animals that she calls family members and confidants.

Much like me and my picture book pursuits, Lori has returned to a childhood passion that lights her up and gives her tremendous fulfillment: riding horses. Here's a lovely piece that she wrote on the topic, which I hope you enjoy!

In Lori's words...

As busy adults, it’s easy to long for the simpler days of childhood. There’s a reason there are shirts and coffee mugs that say “Adulting is Hard” because let’s face it, it is. When I was a child, one of my very favorite things to do was to ride horses. People often ask me when I first started riding, and honestly, it’s hard for me to ever remember a time when I didn’t.

I grew up in a busy suburban neighborhood, but a few miles down the road from where I lived there was an old barn where people boarded their horses. I remember eyeballing the horses from the backseat of my parents’ car and innocently squealing out “HORSE!!!!” as we drove by, which is ironically something that my youngest daughter, now 2, does all the time as well. My mom finally gave in to my incessant requests to stop and see these beautiful animals, and from there on out, I was hooked. I wanted to be near those big, majestic creatures. 

Horses have a certain draw about them that only horse people can feel. Imagine a fresh pie baking and only a handful of people in a crowd can smell it. Like the scent of a dessert wafting through the air, I caught the horse bug by way of magic that comes directly into the heart of a horse-lover when they first catch glimpse of a horse.

My entire childhood was spent riding horses.  Many people grow up with horses and for some, it’s even in their family’s blood, profession or livelihood. For me, my mom had enjoyed horses as a girl, but never rode in adulthood. Her parents loved horses and had an annual Kentucky Derby Party at their house for several years, but we were definitely “city folks” and the closest my family got to a horse was sitting on the couch watching the racehorses cross the finish line at Church Hill Downs. Looking at me, they probably thought there was a reason the expression “horse crazy” existed. It was like I caught a bug none of the other members of my family had, and man did I have it bad! 

Horses became a hobby, a passion, and an escape into my imagination when I was growing up. A lot of the time I had to pretend my bicycle was a horse, but growing up in the city, you do what you have to do! When I was lucky, my weekends were spent at barns where my mom would drop me off and pay for me to go on a 2-hour trail ride with a group of other people. The slow rides often bored me to tears, so my favorite thing to do was get in the back of the line and hold my horse back until everyone got far ahead of me and then I’d gallop to catch up. I did this again and again, and it always seemed to baffle the trail boss leading the group, when we’d get back to the barn and my horse would be the only one lathered in sweat!

My mom constantly tried to enable my requests to ride. A few trail rides here and there in a Western saddle, a trip out of town where we’d pass a barn and I’d end up taking a lesson and learning to jump on a stubborn little pony. Then one day when I was 13, we passed a barn with elegant “long-necked horses” that turned out to be American Saddlebreds. A few introductions and commutes to this barn later, and I was showing American Saddlebreds on the weekends in flat-saddleseat saddles in high-stepping fast action show classes all over the state of North Carolina and Virginia.

So for me, when people ask, "What kind of riding do you do?" to me that’s like asking, "What kind of food do you eat?" If you’re starving, you don’t demand one type of food, and to me that’s what it was like with horses. I would ride bareback, Western, English, Saddleseat or Huntseat, and for the first 20-years of my life, that’s pretty much exactly what I did.

Now fast forward to when I met my husband when I was 21. Even though I was a city girl, I definitely fell for a country boy. A few years later, when we were married and living in Memphis, one day my husband looked at me and asked, “Want to move to the country?” I had never lived in the country, so he might as well have been asking me if I wanted to go to the moon. As I sat deliberating the question, he sealed the deal by saying, “We could get horses!”

That was 10 years ago, and now when I look out the windows of my house and gaze into my backyard, there are indeed horses. People find it hard to believe that a city girl like me would just pack up and move to the country for something as simple as “horses,” but it’s true. I’ve learned so much about myself and these beautiful animals by taking care of them and keeping them on our property for the past decade.

There is a stark contrast between showing up to ride at a horse show or being dropped off at a barn on a Saturday for a trail ride, to caring for horses 12 months a year and through four seasons when they’re in your backyard! From throwing hay in the fall to breaking ice in the trough in winter, to days like today when I come in the house post ride, mid-day in July, drenched in sweat. There’s a toll that comes with caring for horses, and the only reason anyone would ever take on something so demanding would have to be because they love it so much.

For me riding is love. When I ride, I am immersed in only what I am doing in that moment. I’m not thinking about work, about the daily stressors of life, or anything else, only my ride. The same way an artist loses themselves in the act of painting or a singer in a burst of song, when I ride, I am free. I am somewhere else, and I am where I need to be all at the same time. I heard a saying once, “You lose yourself in what you love, and you find yourself there too.” That’s how I feel when I ride. The noise of the outside world becomes silent, and all I feel is what is going on between me and my horse.

When I became a mother, I was curious if my children would want to ride. My oldest daughter cracks me up because she likes riding for different reasons than I do. Let’s just say, I don’t think she smells that magical pie baking; I just think she wants to hang out in the kitchen. This girl loves people more than horses, and when we go to horse shows, she is more intent on gallivanting around the grounds with her friends and making the parents laugh than she is getting on her horse some days. Did I mention she is 7? The future is going to be fun! Honestly though, I am so glad I have this common bond with my children and that we are sharing something they will enjoy for the rest of their lives.

Even though my oldest daughter rides for different reasons than I do, it thrills me to see her enjoying horses. I was happy to introduce her to riding because of what it teaches to any child or person that learns to ride, regardless of how much they love horses. The skills gleaned riding a horse will cross over into all areas of life in the best of ways. Confidence, communication, patience, hard-work, endurance and trust. A trainer once told me when I was a child to never forget that horseback riders have a very special gift. They can communicate with another species without words or language. No matter what a horse and rider do together, whether it's jump a fence, rope a cow, round a barrel or move on command, these animals follow a language that isn’t spoken in words. To me, that was a powerful lesson that I wanted to impart on my children.

The other thing I knew my children would learn from riding was hard work. From lifting saddles, to achieving balance, to learning to get back up and try again, any rider from any discipline of riding can relate. Riding is not for the faint of heart. It’s a sweaty, gritty, treacherous sport, and there is nothing pretty about the behind-the-scenes work that goes into caring for horses. Yet there’s such a reward, because riding teaches a give and take, a mutual respect, a trust, and an ability to recalculate if the first approach doesn’t work. These life lessons are ones I wanted to impart onto my children, and they are lessons I relearn every time I go for a ride.

Today when I pull into our driveway and see our horses grazing peacefully on our property, I know moving to the country was part of a larger plan to continue doing something that I love and to teach this love to my children. When I hear my youngest daughter scream “HORSE!!!” and as I watch my oldest daughter hone her skills, work the rodeo crowd with a smile on her face, and develop the confidence to go faster, do better, and improve in her horse-related accomplishments, I know these beautiful creatures are still working their magic the way they’ve worked their magic for countless years on countless other people. I will continue to feel a joy when I ride and will always believe that a day spent in the saddle is never wasted, and there is always something new to learn and love when I’m near a horse.