I really enjoy walking alongside my horses, as much as, if not more than riding them. It’s unusual, I know, but to me it feels like a different kind of partnership when we’re both walking. When I ride, the horse is lending me so many things- his back, his strength, his agility and his speed. When I walk beside him, I’m lending him courage.
It never ceases to amaze me how much braver horses are when I lead them vs ride them. Olaf when ridden alone is spooky and nervous, a real Looky Lou. When I walk with him, he’s playful and charming and so, so much braver. He isn’t afraid to go anywhere or over/through/under anything, as long as I’m there on the ground with him. I’m not sure why this is, but I’ve found it universally true with horses. For some reason they feel alone when being ridden, maybe because we’re more out of sight. I don’t know, but I always start things on the ground and then progress to under saddle. It’s just how horses work.
Olaf’s funny thing that he does is to reach out and touch me with his nose. When I first got him and he was hungry and underweight, he would be overjoyed to see me every day, because he equated me with food. He would come bounding up the hill toward the gate, like a giant, exuberant dog, and come right up to me and touch me with his nose. He didn’t do it forcefully, or in a naughty way. It was just his way of saying he was glad to see me.
Now he does it to greet me, to ask for a cookie, to remind me to feed him, and sometimes he does it playfully, like he’s saying, “Hey, isn’t this fun?!” The other night on our moonlit walk, he reached out and touched my arm and when I didn’t respond, he reached out again and bit me! I scolded him for biting, but it was clear that he was having a great time and wanted someone to play with him. He was obviously enjoying himself. There’s no way I would have been able to ride him into the woods in the dark though. He would never have been brave enough for that, not yet anyway. Walking with him gave us an opportunity to have this fun mini-adventure in the moonlight that he clearly enjoyed!
The point is, I actually enjoy walking alongside him and don’t feel that I’m missing out by not riding. Random people I run into are generally delighted to see the horses. I always hear funny comments like, “That’s a really big dog!” Non-horsey people can walk up and pet the horses and have a chat about them as well, since I’m on the ground to do the introductions.
On the other hand, horse people look at me like I have two heads and ask why I’m not riding, as if the whole point of horses is to ride them, and if you’re not riding, you’re doing it wrong. I usually respond that I do ride too, but sometimes I enjoy walking as well.
I was reading an article by a woman who rode across Scotland and England with her horse and dog, and she said in the article that she ended up preferring leading her horse to riding him. I think that’s the first time I’ve seen another rider say that and it made me happy to not be alone!
If you’re a die hard rider and it’s never occurred to you to take your horse for a hike, I encourage you to try. It’s a way to bond with your horse on the ground and for both of you to get more fit. It’s also a nice break for the horse to get to be with you, instead of working for you. Back when I was trying to show horses, I would have thought walking with them was a complete waste of time. I needed every second I could get in the saddle. What I didn’t realize is that sometimes it’s nice to give the horse a break, to do something out of the ordinary, and to make it more fun for the horse!