Riding Horses in Playa del Carmen
For my first riding lesson I was put onto a horse bareback, the trainer leading it on a lunge line so I didn’t even have the reins to hold onto. “This is it,” I thought as the animal slid around underneath me, “this is the day I fall off.”
I’m 40 years old and taking riding lessons for the first time. My two daughters are doing it with me, but they are 7 and 9 and still invincible.
We decided to take lessons because after spending years at our friend Nina’s in home daycare back in Iowa and being around her horses June and Rory think they know how to ride. She would let them sit on the horse’s backs while she brought them from the pasture to the barn in the evening. They brushed them down and helped her pick mud out of their feet and fill their water buckets, but we couldn’t afford to send them for riding lessons.
Living in Mexico our money goes a lot further, and one of the exciting opportunities for us in Playa del Carmen was a chance to learn to ride during the year we are here. Really ride, not just sit on a trail horse that is following the tail in front of it – I admit, I’ve done that enough that I thought I knew something about riding myself. But I don’t.
Am I too old for this?
We’ve been taking lessons for a month and half at Hipico Playa del Carmen, a beautiful place hidden back in the jungle. While the girls are now riding around the ring on their own with mixed results I am struggling to get comfortable. Change is hard, and doing new things at 40 is a lot harder than doing them at 7 or 9. It’s part of the adventure that we wanted, but some days it’s easier than others.
Riding is a lot more challenging than I expected. It does take muscle to raise yourself up and down, the hold on to the horse while your hands are busy with the reins, to keep your body steady with a thousand pound animal moving underneath you. I even got an embarrassing thigh cramp the other day from kicking my horse to make it go and had to stop for a minute.
I never understood the idea that riding takes muscles, you just sit on your butt up there, right? Not when you’re supposed to be doing a rising trot. You know how English riders kind of bounce on their horses? Back and forth with the rhythm of the animal’s gait, up and down and keeping your balance and not falling off. That last part is the most important to me, because I really don’t want to fall off.
When I was younger I rode horses now and then just going on instinct. We even owned one for a while, although no one in my family knew anything about horses (and the horse figured that out pretty quick.) My sister took riding lessons and my dad got her one when she was 13, but I was the one who got on Leo first every time she wanted to ride. I would walk him around wear him out a little so he would be calmer for her, and I don’t remember having any fear even when he acted up. That was 20 years ago, back when I was still invincible too.
Facing my fear
Here’s the thing: I’ve never fallen off a horse, even when my uncle’s horse Boots bucked across a field with me and my cousin on his back, even when the neighbors horse was stung by a bee and took off running for a little bit.
I kind of wish I had fallen off before so I knew what it was like, because not knowing makes me more afraid of doing it now. The ring we ride in at Hipico has a thick layer of sand to soften it but I’m still not looking forward to the day when I find out how it feels to land in it. I remind the girls that if you spend enough time riding eventually you fall off, everyone does, and I try to act like it’s no big deal.
After that first lesson they put us in a saddle, but it’s an English saddle and I’ve only ridden with a Western one. The big difference is the lack of a saddle horn, and while I wasn’t clinging to it before it was a little alarming to feel like I had nothing to hang onto.
Our beginner horse, Romeo, looked too skinny to hold me when I first saw him. It turns out he is a thoroughbred, a former racehorse that was the first horse everyone rode when they started at Hipico. He was gentle and patient and every time I lost my balance he slowed and stopped, which I greatly appreciated. Last week his owner moved him closer to home, and we will miss him.
First we rode in a circle with our instructor, Ana, guiding Romeo from the lunge line and she encouraged us to hang onto the front of the blanket. Gradually we have all gotten stronger and learned to let go. The girls have progressed faster than I have; watching Rory trot with both arms straight out and a big smile on her face is amazing. June is more nonchalant, trying to look cool (she’s approaching that age.)
Now we ride a few different horses and each has their own personality and their own quirks. Pajarita (Little Bird) likes to be at the front of the group, Picasso knows when it’s dinner time and gets stubborn about heading for the gate, and Onyx, well, Onyx is just a little lazy. He’s the one I got that leg cramp on.
I feel like I’m a little behind the kids but Ana is patient with me, understanding that being older doesn’t necessarily mean being wiser. Every time I go out to ride I have to overcome my anxiety. Every time I climb up on a horse and I feel unsteady for those first few minutes that thought comes back: “This is the day I’m going to fall off.” But I keep on going.
Someday I will fall off, (and so will each of my girls,) and I know it won’t be nearly as scary as all the anticipation of it has been. And then I’ll get back on and keep going.