Equestrians do not gallop into the arena on their own two feet or defy the laws of gravity to propel themselves over the fences with their own solitary power, so some might say that horseback riding does not meet the necessary requirements as a sport. And these people would be correct almost. Horseback riding is not just a sport; its something much more. Its the delicate negotiation of power and friendship, servitude and partnership, strength and grace. As Medhi Kazemi, coach and trainer at Old Homestead Farm of Rocky Point says, Horseback riding is a language. First, I teach the alphabet. Then my students learn to construct words, then sentences and paragraphs. Then they can go on to write an essay.
The words, he goes on to explain, are the basics of horsemanship: how to lead a horse in and out of a stall properly; how to groom a horse, the names and uses of the brushes, how to pick hooves; and the names and parts of the saddle. Words are formulated as riders learn the correct way to mount and dismount, how to guide a horse at a walk and trot.
This is when my students learn their job description and how they should go about communicating to a horse, Kazemi says.
At Old Homestead, spread on 105 acres just north of Wilmington, horse and rider are both undeniable athletes who are required to maintain a certain level of fitness, endurance and skill. They are also teammates who have jobs that do not end when they step out of a competitive arena. After 25 years of riding, training and coaching professionally, no one is more aware of this than Kazemi.
I would rather have a good sportswoman a good horsewoman than a good rider, he says. A good horsewoman is involved with every aspect of the animal, not just riding. Riders use horses to feed their egos. Horsewomen do this for the passion.
The nuances of horsemanship: how and what to feed a horse, how to clean, vet and care for a one, the rules and scheduling of pasture turn-out, all of these tasks and experiences build a bond between horse and rider.
Every time a rider pours water into a horses trough, treats a wound from a scuffle in the pasture, or bathes the sweat from its back, a trust and union is developed. A language is being spoken. And in this sport, the relationship between horse and rider is everything. A horse does not carry a rider over a three-foot fence. He carries a guide and teacher, a caregiver and nurturer, a teammate and friend. He lifts his feet off the ground, up and over a fence because his rider has a fluency in his language. They are soaring in the air, one long arc of strength and grace because his rider whispered, fly.
Olivia Murray, 14, has been riding horses for nine years.
She had her first encounter when she noticed a sign on the side of the road advertising a riding camp. Murrays very first day, she fell in love. Over the years, Murray has worked with and successfully shown several of her own horses, but her biggest accomplishment came last year when she competed in the Interscholastic Equestrian Association. The program is designed to develop middle school and high school athletes for collegiate level riding with the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association. In both the equestrian association and the horse show association, riders do not compete with their own horses. They travel across the country to the horse barns hosting competitions where theyre paired with a horse theyve never ridden before. The idea is that horsewomen have to form a rapport with their new mount and, as Kazemi puts it, solve the puzzle of each others language as quickly as possible to perform successfully in the show ring. As it turns out, Murray is a linguist. In 2012, in her first year competing in the equestrian association with Old Homestead, she made it to nationals in Syracuse, New York, a feat that followed showing successfully in five local competitions then placing in the top two at regionals. She credits her accomplishments to training six days a week with her 17-hand thoroughbred/quarter horse cross and her teacher, Kazemi, who keeps her skills sharp with weekly lessons on different horses to focus on equitation, the position of the rider and the beautiful art of learning how form meets function.
Of her dream, Murray says, I guess every little kids dream is to become a professional and go to the Olympics. But Im realistic. Thats really hard. But Im still going to try.
Brittany Cameron, 15, did not always love horses.
Actually, she used to be afraid of them. So when Cameron looks back, she says her biggest accomplishment was the first time she worked up the courage to mount a horse.
My aunt has many horses, but she had one named Pablo. He was special and we had a great connection. He made me want to ride, Cameron recalls.
Six years later, Cameron still rides, but now in a weekly lesson with Kazemi. Shes developed solid equitation skills and is mastering more advanced techniques, like how to maintain soft but effective contact with her hands, and how to correctly use riding aids like a crop or spurs. Shes come a long way since her walking and trotting days.
I was nervous the first time I cantered, she says.
But now, she too, competes in the equestrian association. She doesnt have a horse of her own, but the organization has leveled the playing field for young horsewomen who dont own their own horses by creating a competition that focuses on a riders skill and ability, as opposed to regular practices and familiarity with one another. Its an important experience for Cameron because shes got big dreams.
Im going to ride forever, she says. One day, I want to own my own farm and do training. Then her eyes light up, And I want to go to the Olympics.
Judy Bishop, 68, has been riding for 38 years.
Horseback riding isnt just for the young, its also for the young at heart.
I was the mother of the little girl who saw the horses in the pasture and wanted to pull over on the side of the road. So I did. When she started riding, I realized I didnt want to sit on the sidelines, so we started together, Bishop says. Today, Bishop owns two horses: one, a 12-year-old quarter horse/Trakehner cross shes owned for nine years, and a black, solid colored paint with a striking white blaze. As an adult rider, she has different goals than some of the competitive horsewomen at her barn. She dreams of riding over a 2-foot-6-inch jump course perfectly. Bishop says her biggest challenge is keeping the body strong enough to be able to ride with the best of them. Its a challenge she welcomes five days a week.
[Horseback riding] makes me feel like Im 10 again, Bishop says. Its just a joy and a freedom when Im connected with my horse. And Ill ride right on. Right until the day I die.