By LISA KLEIN
Since the horse was first domesticated some 4,000 years ago in the central Eurasian steppe, humans and horses have gone hand and hoof.
While the relationship may have begun as purely utilitarian, nowadays horse enthusiasts are involved in a multitude of equestrian pursuits – from simple trail riding in nature to highly competitive sporting events.
“I think that’s really the beauty of the horse,” said Lee Carter, executive director of the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Kentucky.
“You don’t have to go and be an extreme jumper – if you want to be laid back and casual, great, let’s go trail riding,” he said. “There really is something for someone at every level.”
In the saddle
Many horse lovers start out not knowing anything about the animal, but a riding lesson, trail ride or visit to an equestrian center lights the fire.
“There are many ways to get involved, from having riding lessons at a riding school, heading out on a trail ride at a trekking center or, of course, owning a horse for leisure or competition,” said Mark Hayward, press officer for Hartpury University and Hartpury College in Gloucester, United Kingdom, which offer courses in equine science, rider training facilities and host riding competitions.
The Kentucky Horse Park encourages budding horse fans of all ages and levels with both professional competitions and a tourism-centered side of the park that shows visitors the myiad of opportunities in the equestrian world, from amateur to professional.
“We do believe in that connection between people and horses that’s special,” Mr. Carter said. “And then it becomes, what kind of equestrian do I want to be?”
Trail riding is the simplest for hobby riders, although amateurs can get involved in many disciplines from jumping and carriage driving to dressage, Western and even eventing.
Dressage, in which a rider trains a horse to perform a series of specific movements, is a technical sport that will appeal to perfectionists.
Barrel racing, roping and reining bring out a rider’s competitive, sporty side.
Showjumping and endurance riding test the strength of the horse, with eventing a triathlon of dressage, cross-country riding and jumping.
“With so many different professional disciplines, everyone has a different definition of exciting,” Mr. Hayward said.
When riders choose to take it up a notch and get competitive, they have a global community of like-minded equestrians waiting for them.
“It’s large when you begin to think of the number of breeds and disciplines,” Mr. Carter said. “But then it becomes a close-knit group,” within each one.
“You’re going to travel to the same shows, communicate, talk about similar things, so as you get into it you begin to learn more and know people,” he said.
Even competitive equestrian sports are available at many levels, from amateur shows to disciplined professionals who train nonstop.
When it comes to the best of the best, spectators get a thrill from watching riders and their horses master jumps, movements and skills, whether they take the form of precise dressage techniques, graceful jumps or sliding through the dirt for Western reining.
However, three-day eventing is often regarded as one of the most thrilling to watch, given the daunting cross-country phase in which horse and rider take on a set course of solid obstacles ranging from tree trunks to ditches, water complexes to banks, Mr. Hayward said.
“This, combined with the two other phases – dressage and showjumping – helps to create the equestrian triathlon and a true test of horse and rider,” he said.
The bond between a horse and rider is key to mastering any equestrian sport and does not come without its challenges. Horses are large, sometimes unpredictable animals that need proper nutrition and care to thrive.
Training, too, comes with huge physical demand and time commitment.
But it is not without its rewards.
“When I see people and the relationship that they build with a horse, that only comes with time,” Mr. Carter said. “It comes from hours and hours of being in a stall with them, brushing them down, caring for them and feeding them.
“It’s a living, breathing thing that you develop that connection with,” he said. “You really do have a companion as you go through it. I think there is that special bond that takes place that’s different from other sports.”
Plus, being around horses has shown to have benefits for mental health, stress relief, anxiety and general wellbeing.
“Horses are, simply put, good for the soul,” Mr. Hayward said.
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