Reconciling Two Loves: Motherhood and Horses
By Elyse Schenk
“Horses will always be waiting for you,” is a well-intentioned reassurance uttered too frequently and exclusively by loved ones who’ve never experienced the isolation of a hiatus from horses. My fiancé offered me the same phrase following the doctor’s orders to stop riding due to minor pregnancy complications that could worsen by the turbulence of a moving horse. This temporary farewell to my lifelong passion served as my first sacrifice of motherhood, and I felt the significance of it at the time.
As my baby grew, my doubt and desperation developed along with him. An unbridgeable gap seemed to expand, separating my will to be a great mother from the possibility of reuniting with horses. My time and energy belonged to my son and the thought of getting back into the saddle was only a nostalgic dream. Plus, how could a mother justify briefly abandoning her child for her own enjoyment, no matter how much she missed her cherished, magical creatures? Guilt stabbed me every time my mind wandered from focusing on the needs of the baby, but I couldn’t resist reminiscing over my old life as an equestrian.
My previous self was free, only barely bounded by the seemingly trivial responsibilities of studying for my college courses and showing up at the barn to ride. My only stressors included improving control of my seat, balancing more effectively in my heels, and maximizing opportunities to be in the saddle as often as possible. Life was simple, fun, and my perception of the future was filled with horses. Though I felt young and full of potential, only hindsight allowed me to see that I was missing key traits to truly develop as a horseperson.
The traits I lacked as a young woman were planted and blossomed once I became a mother. A parent’s role is as a teacher, but I learned from my son every day. First, the demands and utter dependence of an infant didn’t leave any room for useless habits or selfish tendencies.
Particularly, he showed me my capacity for patience, which uprooted my tempered proclivities; compassion replaced apathy, generosity proliferated, and I withered out of the center of my
universe to become oriented towards the responsibility of nurturing someone else. Motherhood renovated my character, although I wasn’t completely whole.
At the very least, an experiment was necessary to try to fill the missing piece. I needed to gauge the possibility of balancing motherhood with the horse world, so the first test began as a weekly riding lesson with fellow amateur ladies.
With the overdue but familiar step into the stirrups, and then settling into the saddle for the first time in that new lifetime, my horse elevated me. Returning to the back of a horse was as uplifting as the long-anticipated embrace of a dearly missed friend. But as those reunions often go, an element felt different than how I remembered. Fortunately, change often implies growth. The new connection I shared with these animals was kinder and more mature than before.
My new disposition, granted by the responsibility and unconditional love of motherhood, allowed me to become a better rider, and more importantly, a better horsewoman. Compassion had become the center of my relationship with horses. My focus had shifted away from insisting and urging the horse to perform for me, and was transformed instead into a soft, patient guidance. The horse’s comfort, trust, and relaxation became much greater priorities, motivating a gentler demeanor, softer and more giving hands as I rode, and sincerer praises and pats to offer my gratitude. The same nurturing tendencies that were normally spent on my baby were shared with the very deserving and generous horse souls.
The experiment of riding as a new mother erased my doubts and inspired my hope. Each night when I return home from a visit with horses, I snuggle with my baby boy even longer, kiss his perfect face more often, and overwhelm him with affection. It became clear that spending time with horses wasn’t selfish, for horses made me a better mother. The brief retreat into my horse haven recharges the inevitable maternal fatigue and improves the interactions my child and I share.
Horses and children share my heart. Yet, my love isn’t simply divided between them. Instead, they compliment, enhance, and restore each other, partnered with meaningful compatibility, just like a mother and father, or the balance between productivity and rest, creativity and rationality — one relies upon the other to excel.
As a mother and an equestrian, I am whole.
Photos are courtesy of Elyse Schenk.
This article was originally published in Canada’s Equine Guide 2020, the special January/February edition of Canadian Horse Journal.