Horse Talk reports on subjects of interest to the Bay Area and California equine communities. Reader participation is encouraged. To respond to an article, suggest a topic, or submit an article for review, write to To read past articles, visit the Horse Talk Archives.

Horse Talk


Horse Talk reports on subjects of interest to the Bay Area and California equine communities. Reader participation is encouraged. To respond to an article, suggest a topic, or submit an article for review, write to To read past articles, visit the Horse Talk Archives.


Horse Time      By Martha McNiel


 Not enough time. Not enough money. Too many responsibilities. Too much traffic. Too much to do. That’s "real life" for most of us in the Bay Area.  Add a horse (or two or three or four) into the mix, and you’ve got some real dilemmas. Should I take Trigger out for some exercise or go to the store and buy groceries for the week? Do I pay the orthodontist bill first or the emergency vet call? Should I clean the house or the tack? Do I have enough time to get to the barn and ride before dark? If I leave for the barn now, will I be sitting in commute traffic instead of bonding with Skippy? Who needs the bonding time more - my neglected, supportive husband or the yearling I just rescued? If I get a recipe for homemade fly spray off the Internet, can I save enough money to buy my daughter those cool new boots she saw at the tack store?

If these choices sound familiar, you are not alone. The American Horse Council Foundation estimated that in 1996 there were 720,500 Californians involved with horses as horse owners, service providers, volunteers, family members and employees in the California horse industry. The same study estimates 333,200 California residents participated in some aspect of horse showing and 487,800 participated in equine-related recreational activities (1). That’s a lot of folks! The fact that you are reading this article means you are probably one of those folks, and you probably face some of these choices on a regular basis.

 That study was for the state of California. What about the San Francisco Bay Area? Who are the horsemen and horsewomen of the Bay Area? How old are they and what do they do with their horses? I looked as far and wide as the nine Bay Area counties and could not find any reasonably accurate answers, except for Sonoma County. A survey conducted by the Sonoma County Horse Council estimated 6,910 Sonoma County residents participated in horse-related activities in 1998 (2). Over half of the Sonoma County equestrians (3,580) were adults between 41-60 years of age. The next largest group of participants were children and teenagers under the age of 18 (1,240). Young adults (26-40 years of age) numbered 1,170. The least-represented age groups included adults over 60 (530) and college-age adults 18-25 years old (390). Of these equestrians, 4,540 persons participated in trail riding. Horse shows were the next most popular activity (with 2,370 participants), followed by dressage (1,590) and breeding (1,090).

Behind these numbers lurk the struggles facing most Bay Area equestrians. Half the horsepersons in the Sonoma County survey were in the prime adult working years (also known as mid-life), when job responsibilities and demands are frequently at their peak, children are often adolescents, and parents are aging. The second largest group of equestrians were children and teens, and their parents may or may not share their child’s passion for horses. Each of those children represent parents who support their child’s horse-related activities with money and time, even when they may not easily fit into the family budget or schedule. The young adults (ages 26-40) are in their prime parenting years, when children are young and demanding; careers are getting started, often requiring extra time and energy; and money may be tight.

 In her video "Get Fit To Ride - Vol. I," Mary Midkiff states that the majority of sport and recreational riders are female (3). She says that 80% of the participants in the English riding disciplines and 60% of Western riders are women and girls. She is citing national statistics, but there is no reason to believe the numbers would be different for the Bay Area. This is an important fact to keep in mind when thinking about how horses and "real" life fit together. Because of the high cost of living here, most women in the Bay Area work outside the home, at least part-time, and many are also caring for children and/or aging parents. Those responsibilities make enjoyable time with horses even more important and more precious, because of the need for personal renewal and recreation. But those same responsibilities often make horse time even harder to find.

The pace of life in the Bay Area seems to be moving faster and faster, and pressures feel ever-increasing. So what is a horse-lover to do? Following are some suggestions to help you get the most out of your time and relationship with your horse, while balancing the responsibilities of your family and the rest of your life.

1. Get to know yourself and your reasons for riding.

The first step in maximizing time and enjoyment with your horse is to ask yourself, "Why am I doing this?" Take time to really think about your answer. If you’ve been riding since childhood, why are you still doing it now? If you’ve begun or come back to riding as an adult, why? In northern California we have a seemingly endless array of recreational activities from which to choose. Why are you choosing to invest your time and money in horses? The answer to this basic question will vary widely from person to person, but your answer is key to knowing how you can plan for maximum return on your investment in horses.

 In "Riding for the Rest of Us", Jessica Jahiel writes, "The better you understand yourself, your life, your reasons for wanting to ride, and the time and money that you can afford to invest in riding, the better your choices and decisions will be." (4). All of us are given a finite amount of time and energy. Some of us have more limited financial resources than others. Some horse lovers have a significant amount of money to "play" with, while others are living paycheck to paycheck. But regardless of your financial situation, if you are involved with horses, you are investing your precious resources of time, energy and money in them. If you are thoughtful and intentional about how you invest, you will enjoy your investment more and feel better about your choices. The happiest people invest their time, energy and money where they get the greatest return (in joy and personal satisfaction).

People ride and love horses for many different reasons. What keeps you coming back to the barn (or pasture)? Some equestrians (both adults and teens) ride in order to spend much-needed time away from their families. On a day when things at home are a bit rough, time spent with a special horse can provide comfort and relief. Other families ride together, and the horse(s) are a way to bring family members together around a common project, a common goal. As the family shares horse time and activities, Misty and Star help to strengthen family communication and relationships.

For some equestrians, competition is central to their involvement with horses. The thrill of competing in a chosen discipline, the rush of adrenaline, the setting of performance goals and meeting competitive challenges brings them a great sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. They wouldn’t be happy not showing or competing with their horses.

Other horselovers consciously choose to not compete with their horses. They frequently compete in many other areas of life, especially at work, and they don’t want one more arena in which to compete. For those riders, horse time is meant to be relaxing and renewing, a time to forget about performing and concentrate on having fun. One of the wonderful things about horses is the broad range of activities available to those who love them.

If you are the parent of a child who rides, you can let the horses (and ponies) strengthen your communication with your child. Help your son or daughter think out loud in your presence about their goals and dreams and reasons for riding. By understanding and figuring out their reasons for riding, both children and adults can get to know themselves better, which greatly increases the possibility of happiness and success with horses and life.

2. Set goals for yourself and your horse.

 What are your goals? Do you have any? What return do you hope to get from investing your time and money in horses? The first step in setting horse goals is to brainstorm about all the things you enjoy about horses. What are the specific aspects of your horse-related activities that bring you the most joy and satisfaction? Sit down at the computer and make a list. Then rank the list in descending order of importance (#1 is the thing you enjoy the very, very most).

One of the most important things I cherish about my horse time is the feeling I have at the barn of being away from the telephone, pager and clock. I purposefully plan my schedule so that, as much as possible, I am not expected to be anywhere particular after I ride. Then, if I spontaneously decide to take a longer trail or I decide to give Nick (my horse) the "spa" treatment after a hot ride, I can do so without having to fret or rush. The freedom and spontaneity I carefully plan into my riding schedule is almost as important to me as my horse. I crave and cherish those few precious hours each week, when I am transformed from a harried urban professional constantly watching the clock, into an old-fashioned cowgirl moseying down the trail with the deer and wild turkeys.

Now, make a second list of the things about your horse life that you don’t like. What are the activities that bring you the least pleasure and most dissatisfaction? What are the things you would most like to change? Rank these in descending order also, from most annoying or disliked to least. Some of these items will be non-negotiables, things you either have no control over or things that cannot be changed. But you may discover, after a little thought, that there are some ways you can make your horse time even more enjoyable for you, and ultimately, also for your horse.

Look at your second list. Is there any way to get out of any of these activities? Do they need to be done, for health or safety reasons, or are they something you can let go of? Can you pay someone else to do them? Can you change the situation or the condition that bothers you? Can you trade cleaning tack with a friend who enjoys braiding tails more than you do? Can you buy a tool or learn a skill that will make some of the less enjoyable tasks more tolerable?

Look over both of your lists, the things you like and things you don’t like about your involvement with horses. This is where you begin to set your goals. What do you want to do more of? How can you do less of the things that bother or annoy you? How can you maximize your time with your horse and make it the most enjoyable for you and your horse? Your lists are the starting point for your horse-related goals. You may have riding or horsemanship goals (for yourself), training goals (for your horse), competitive goals, and other various kinds of goals (items to buy, books to read, clinics to attend, etc.). It is important to put your goals in writing, so that you can remember what it is that you are working toward, and to check off with great satisfaction when you reach them!

A quick reading of the BAEN Bulletin Board for the past several months reveals some of the goals some Bay Area horse folks are working toward. These include: learning new dressage skills, trail riding in national parks, making new friends for horse-related activities, showing at local shows, breeding, riding with a drill team, buying a first horse, competing in endurance riding, pleasure riding on the beach, re-training Thoroughbreds off the track, buying a saddle that fits correctly, driving miniature horses, participating in High School Rodeo, teaching a horse to stand still at the mounting block, collecting Breyer horse models, eventing on ponies, healing a lame horse, horse camping, volunteering at a therapeutic riding program, and adults taking up riding for the first time or after a long time away.

3. Be realistic about your available time and money.

In the book of Ecclesiastes, King Solomon wrote, "For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven." (5). I believe this is true in relationship to horses, as well as to the rest of our lives. What season is it in your life? And how do horses fit in? Many avid horse lovers give up riding during college and graduate school, because their time and finances simply cannot stretch that far. Some of these childhood riders will take up riding again as adults, when they are in another season of life.

But while some horse lovers stop riding when they go to college, others spend their college years more deeply involved with horses then ever, riding and competing with collegiate show and rodeo teams. Like most decisions in life, involvement with horses is a matter of individual choices and priorities. Everyone’s life circumstances, goals and desires are different. You are the expert on your own life and how horses fit in, both now and in the future.

I bought my very fun (though slightly neurotic) Arabian gelding from a wonderful horsewoman whose family obligations were preventing her from being able to give him the time and attention he needs. In that season of her life, her young children and husband were requiring much of her time and attention, and she made the painful, thoughtful decision to part with a horse she had raised, trained and loved, in order to focus on her family. I was at a place in my life where, for the first time in a long time, my personal and professional obligations had lessened and I had the desire, as well as the time, energy and financial resources, to take on a high-energy horse.

But time is not the only area where choices must be made and priorities ordered. Speaking of ordering . . . on-line and mail-order shopping offer horselovers endless opportunities to part with their hard-earned cash. If you have good self-control over your shopping habits, these can be quick and convenient methods for buying necessary (and unnecessary) items, leaving you with more time to spend with your horse. However, if you struggle with self-control a bit in this area, and you don’t have an unlimited supply of cash, you will want to think seriously about how you can stick to your horse budget and not over-spend. With five minutes and a few mouse clicks, you can have a full shopping cart, a full tack room and an empty bank account!

If you are the parent of a child who rides, you can let the horses (and ponies) help your child learn the life skills of time management, planning ahead, money management and personal responsibility. Help your older child or teen work out an annual budget for all horse-related expenses, so they know the actual cost of keeping their horse. Help them set up a system on the computer, where they can track all their horse expenses for the year. Plan to go over these expenses together at the end of the year, and make out a budget for the next year.

You can also help your child think through how much time he has for different activities, including homework, and plan a workable schedule for the new school year. Help your daughter evaluate whether or not she really has time to ride and be on a soccer team this year, or how many shows she can realistically fit between track meets. This is where children learn about priorities, choices and the responsibility of taking care of an animal, even when it is inconvenient or a hassle. If your child learns responsibility and follow-through from taking care of a horse, that life lesson itself will be worth far more than your entire equine financial investment!

4. Focus on the things that bring you the most joy.

 Remember that riding is supposed to be fun. You ride because you enjoy it, not because you need a horse to get from Vallejo to San Jose.

In the June 2000 issue of John Lyons’ Perfect Horse magazine, John Lyons told how he lost his stallion, Dream, in a trailer accident many years ago. John writes, "The future performance never happened, and my last ride on Dream was over before I knew it. . . . But since I lost Dream, I’ve made it a priority to remember that training should be fun, and it should build the relationship. And as a result, both my training and my horse relationships have improved."(6)

If you are not enjoying your horse time right now, some changes may be in order. What is preventing you from enjoying your horse? If it is fear, talk to your trainer and/or a good psychotherapist. If it is fatigue from non-horse responsibilities, how can you lighten your load? If it is boredom, what new challenges would you like to take on? If it is a long-standing frustration, you may want to consider getting a new horse or a new trainer. This is where you refer back to the lists you made and the goals you set, and to your very personal reasons for riding.

You can set up the conditions that give happiness and joy the greatest chance. You do this when you are thoughtful and intentional about your horse-related activities, you are aware of your personal priorities and reasons for riding, and you consciously shape your life and lifestyle to fit your priorities. You can also set up situations that will make happiness (your own and your horse’s) improbable, if not impossible. That happens when you don’t take control of your time and priorities, and you are riding for reasons that are not really your own. When your riding is based on someone else’s priorities, rather than your own, you are not likely to be having much fun.

Sheila Wall Hundt is quoted in The Quotable Horse Lover as saying, "Whatever your purpose in riding, be sure that it includes the elements of fun and appreciation of your horse. Then you will be well on your way to becoming a true horseman." (7)


1. "The Economic Impact of the Horse Industry in the United States, Vol. 2." c. 1996 by the American Horse Council Foundation, pp. 3-4.

2. "The Economic and Social Value of Sonoma County Equestrian Activities" by Carlos Benito and Kathleen Sundin, Institute for Community Planning and Assistance, Sonoma State University, 1999, pp. 8-9.

3. "Get Fit To Ride - Vol. 1, Introduction" by Mary D. Midkiff. Video produced by InterMark & IHN Video.

4. Jahiel, Jessica. "Riding for the Rest of Us: A Practical Guide for Adult Riders" (1996, Howell Book House), p. 13.

5. Ecclesiastes 3:1 (New Revised Standard Version).

6. Lyons, John. "You Never Know." John Lyons’ Perfect Horse, June 2000, p.2.

7. Price, Steven D. (editor). "The Quotable Horse Lover" (1999, The Lyons Press), p. 133.


Martha C. McNiel is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with a private practice in San Francisco and Mill Valley. She divides her time between working to pay the horse bills and playing with horses as much as possible. Martha is currently completing her Doctor of Psychology degree by studying how therapeutic riding helps children with emotional and psychological problems. She is a member of NARHA and the Equine Facilitated Mental Health Association. Martha owns and rides a beautiful, neurotic Arabian named "Nick." She can be reached at

Copyright ? 2000 Martha C. McNiel and The Bay Area Equestrian Network. All rights reserved. The above article is the property of the Author and may not be duplicated or redistributed in any way without permission.