It wasn’t fear of riding that kept me out of the saddle for so long. It was fear of what other people would say about my riding.
I effectively stopped saddling up in 2012 when I left Virginia and moved home to mid-Michigan to restart my career. I asked around a couple times for an affordable riding situation on an appropriately-sized horse for my weight (I wasn’t quite 290 then, but still heavy enough to need something big and sturdy) but didn’t have any luck.
There were occasional visits back to Virginia, including one where I tried to teach my then-fiance to ride, giving him detailed instructions about how it should feel to drop his heel but neglecting to tell him how to steer.
Other than vacations to Virginia, I didn’t ride. Back at home, I truthfully wasn’t trying that hard. I was too afraid of somebody saying something cruel, of not even hearing me out. I imagined that they’d call me selfish, that they’d accuse me of horse abuse, that they just wouldn’t like me.
“I’m not asking to ride a 900-pound horse. I’m asking if you’ve got anything suitable,” I’d imagine saying in my own defense.
The story I started telling myself was that I needed to just buy an appropriately-sized horse and forget about lesson barns. That wasn’t going to happen on an entry-level TV news producer’s salary.
I got fatter. I got married. Then a friend got married.
I went back to Virginia for the wedding and stayed with my trainer and hunted (third field) on my favorite horse that morning.
I did not know it was possible to be that happy.
Throughout the years I lived in Virginia and worked in Washington, D.C., I grappled with depression. I rode frequently, and I hunted a few times, and I had friends, and there were reasons to be happy, but it all existed behind a veil. My occasional happiness seemed like it belonged to somebody else.
I’m not cured now, but marriage to a kind person who adores me and working in a job I love have gone a long ways toward feeling present in my own happiness.
When I hunted last fall, I knew I was pretty happy with my life. I figured I’d be a little happier if I was also riding, but I didn’t know how much more.
There I was, on horseback, on a steady horse that enjoyed his job, outdoors, good company, taking pleasure in exerting my strength and energy instead of just obediently doing my reps at the gym. It was a revelation.
My husband knew the horse ownership issue was coming; we’d been talking about it off and on since our relationship became serious. When I got home, we talked about it again, and I started doing my research.
But I kept postponing the decision to shop.
I felt overwhelmed by the task of finding a local trainer to help me. Finding a trainer whose horsemanship values match mine is one thing. But I was also looking for somebody who doesn’t fat-shame and doesn’t have subconscious fat-phobia.
I didn’t want to accidentally hire somebody who saw only fat; who didn’t know how to look at my position in the saddle and see where my hip bones are.
I didn’t want a trainer who subconsciously values me less than their thinner, established clients and who would sign off on a horse with a less-than-ideal temperament because the trainer, deep down, doesn’t care if I live or die.
I’d like to be clear, here, that I am not accusing any particular trainer of behaving that way or thinking that way.
I am, however, saying that my lived experience of being a fat woman in America means that I never assume that I’m going to get the very best that an unfamiliar professional has to offer. Not from doctors, not from carnival workers, not from people who try to sell me sunglasses.
I assume that they are going to misunderstand my body, and I’m going to have to work very hard at being charming to get them to give a damn about me.
And so, reluctant to trust a stranger with my life, I stalled.
Then in late April, I got a message from my best friend’s husband. Their daughter, my “niece,” wanted to learn to ride. Was this something I could do with her?
A wave of shame knocked into me. I probably couldn’t help. Sure, I could probably lean over the fence while someone else gave her a lesson, but I couldn’t ride alongside her.
And then another wave of emotion, just as strong: jealousy. I didn’t want some other auntie exchanging grins with my niece as they cantered in unison across a rolling green field. (My overactive imagination lives on a golf course, I guess.)
I wanted it to be me. That’s MY job. And I couldn’t bear the thought of telling her that I was too ashamed of my body to even try to take some joy out of it.
And what was I supposed to say? Wait another year to take your first riding lesson while I try to lose the weight I’ve already been trying to lose for eight months or 20 years, depending on how you look at it?
I stuffed my pride away and started sending emails.
The results of those emails mean one of two things: either the universe is smiling on my horse endeavors, or wow, I really let fear and shame dictate a lot of my life.
Next time, as promised, I’ll tell you about the very first horse I tried after I committed to horse shopping.
Karen Hopper Usher is returning to riding after several years away. She’s sharing her perspective and experiences as a plus-sized rider with The Chronicle of the Horse. By day, she is a reporter at a small newspaper in northern Michigan. She is horse-shopping like it’s her second job.