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What Horseback Riding Taught Me about Love

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The things we love latch onto our hearts through our senses, and for many years, my utmost joy came wrapped in the smell of hay and leather. Happiness adhered to me like the fine layer of dirt and sweat that coated my forearms after spending an afternoon with beautiful, proud and complicated animals. Loving them helped me realize that nature is a living textbook, and each of its many lessons connects back to our Heavenly Parent who wants to experience it with us.

Waiting for Us to Get it Right

Horseback riding offers a unique way to learn about partnership. In this sport, our partner is a thousand-pound animal whom we are expected to straddle, figure out a shared language with, then use that language to communicate while traversing all sorts of terrain at high speeds and sometimes enormous heights (did you know that some Olympic-level obstacles are as tall as an American refrigerator? Try jumping that!). What’s more, this partner could easily decide not to cooperate and dump the rider on the ground in an instant, but it chooses not to—as long as the rider respects it.

Romans 8:19–23 states: “The whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for…the redemption of our bodies.”

There’s a part of us—and of nature—that yearns to experience goodness, truth and untarnished beauty, and when we utilize God’s creation in a dignified and loving way, be it through good horsemanship or other environmentally conscious choices, we tap into that longing. Unificationists refer to this experience as the third of the Three Great Blessings.

How much might the world change if we viewed each other the way horses see us: without title or net worth, without any means to any ends…simply as partners, making our way through life together and hoping to enjoy the ride?

Creation is Our Teacher

Horses are excellent at revealing character: any fears or weaknesses we have become evident while riding. For example, riders who don’t like working hard tend to sit like a sack of potatoes with floppy legs that irritate a horse’s flanks, while impatient riders might lean too far forward, throwing off the horse’s center of gravity and inhibiting movement.

My flaw? Being too afraid to genuinely trust my equine partners. Love them as I did, I also feared what they were capable of, and when something went wrong, rather than calmly finding a solution my brain would spring into panic mode. Horses pick up very quickly on the emotions of their riders and often mirror them, so a panicked rider creates a panicked horse, which can lead to spooking (trying to flee) or bucking (trying to eject the rider).

As humiliating as it can be to let our flaws be exposed, pushing past weaknesses is just as important as enjoying our strengths. Watching a beautiful sunset soothes our soul, but a challenging hike up a mountain pushes our limits and shows us what we’re made of.

Love Means Getting Hurt

Learning partnership and overcoming technical weaknesses are painful processes, but my most difficult lesson would have nothing to do with sore muscles or a bruised ego.

At my peak, I was seriously considering a career with horses, feeling a surge of hope that God genuinely wanted me to succeed—until my instructor and boss suddenly decided she no longer needed me. Working for her had been the only way I could afford to ride, and just like that, my very lifeline to the horse world was severed. I tried in earnest to find other ways to keep riding, but nothing was sustainable.

I eventually realized that I have since been afraid to let myself love anything as deeply, for fear of losing it again, but doing so leads to a life that’s only half-passionate. What we love most deeply—whether people or activities—is what can break our hearts the most. Yet allowing ourselves to be vulnerable and to let others in is the ultimate act of loving, and indeed of living. Father Moon’s words, “True love gives, forgets that it has given and continues to give without ceasing,” is a concept not exclusive to our relationships with people. Our interests are gateways to God’s heart, and if we don’t open those gates wide open, how else can God reach us?

My pulse still quickens every time I drive past fields of grazing horses, and I renew the promise in my heart to ride again: to be blessed with the spine-tingling whoosh of wind whipping past my ears, the satisfying quiver of muscles that have worked hard and the unspeakably gentle tickle of a horse’s warm breath on my face, horse language for “I like you. I trust you. I choose to be your friend.”