My first time riding bareback was probably like everyone else’s first time: full of fear and awe. Riding in a saddle was one thing, but getting rid of that meant I no longer had any sense of security. The saddle had a horn to grab onto in case of emergencies – never mind that such an act was probably the worst thing you could do. I also didn’t have stirrups to stand up in – also a big no-no. Bareback meant it was just the horse and me; my seat and legs the only things keeping me from falling off of her.
Was I going to trust her? Was I going to trust myself? I couldn’t pretend to be balanced. I either was or I wasn’t. I couldn’t lie my way through the experience or act like I knew what I was doing because the horse would know and would respond to what I was actually telling her. This was true in a saddle as well, but it was even truer riding bareback. Not only did I feel everything the horse was doing, but the horse felt everything I was doing as well. She couldn’t lie to me any more than I could lie to her.
This fact made my relationship with the horse the most honest one I’d ever had. Horses can be sneaky; they can defy you and ignore you but they can’t lie to you. I’d never experienced that kind of relationship with another living being before. I always understood that God couldn’t lie (Titus 1:2) but I’d never really seen what that looks like having a relationship with someone, or something, that communicated with absolute honesty before. It forced me into two choices – return with equal vulnerability, or not have a relationship at all. This was applicable with a horse, as well as in my relationship with God. You can’t be halfway honest with a horse and expect there to be a connection. You can’t be halfway honest with God, either, and expect to be in tune with His will for your life.
With someone else holding the lead, I gripped the mane and tried to remember to breathe. I sat back and listened with my body, feeling the horses shoulders rise and fall with every step. I didn’t expect her to be so warm. In the frigid winter air it was comforting. I found myself staring at her mane until I was told, Look where you want to go. Head up. I did, and reminded myself to breathe. My heart was racing, and I remembered an anxious rider meant an anxious horse. I closed my eyes and breathed in and out again. In and out… my grip relaxed on her mane and the question came, Do you want to trot? I nodded, not trusting my voice. She picked up her pace and I cried out, a mixture of delight and fear, and gripped her mane tighter. One circle, two, breathe in and out, in and out… and I heard it.
Words so quiet they could hardly be considered a whisper. Slowly, my hands trembling, I let out a deep breath and released her mane. My body compensated seeking balance, and yet even as I began to stretch my arms out to the side like walking a tight rope, my palms began to sweat inside my gloves. I had little control, but I was staying balanced. There was a connection, a partnership, unlike anything I’d ever experienced. I knew exactly what I lacked and what she gave, what I needed to do to take care of myself and to help her at the same time. In the most magnificent way, we had become one. An impossible unity, if I hadn’t first let go.