Anyone who’s watched the final leg of the Preakness recognizes that both horses and the people who ride them are impressive athletes. But horse and rider don’t have to be Triple Crown contenders to get a good workout — even an introductory lesson works muscles all over the body. As a bonus, learning to ride exercises the mind, too.
At Graham Equestrian Center (GEC), a nonprofit horse boarding and instruction facility in Gunpowder State Park, an hourlong private lesson began inside a small office, where professional horse trainer Jim McDonald instructed me on the key tenets of horsemanship and riding — from keeping a soft, open gaze to staying grounded through the horse — as I perched atop “Missy,” a mechanical horse McDonald uses to teach students.
Pollard rides Willie along a trail in the Gunpowder woods as Rachael North and Jim McDonald follow along, giving instructions.
McDonald emphasized the importance of understanding horsemanship as a whole — not just riding. “Riding is a part of it,” he explained. “But we also teach how to approach, care for and be with the animal.”
Once McDonald (and I) felt that I’d absorbed the basics, he passed the reins, so to speak, to Rachael North, the director of GEC’s riding program. North introduced me to my ride for the day, Willie, a 10-year-old former racehorse that GEC acquired from After the Races, a Pennsylvania-based racehorse “rehoming” program.
With North’s guidance, I groomed Willie and prepped him for the ride. We then led the horse to GEC’s outdoor ring, where North patiently helped me mount, walk and steer my new equine friend. After a short practice session in the ring, we took to the trail, walking Willie through the Gunpowder woods, where a horsey obstacle course, including jumps, tight turns and other tricky situations, is available for more advanced riders.
Expert riders make riding a horse look easy — and North’s calm instruction surely made the experience more natural than it could have been. But it was still challenging both mentally and physically. Frequently, North and McDonald issued reminders to breathe deeply and to adjust my gaze; riding a horse requires mindfulness and attentiveness to the body similar to practicing yoga.
As I dismounted — again, under North’s watchful eye — my legs and core muscles reminded me that though I wasn’t quite Preakness-ready, I definitely hadn’t spent the last hour sitting on the sofa.
Graham Equestrian Center in Gunpowder Falls State Park
10301 Harford Road, Glen Arm
Private lessons: $60/hr
Semi-private lessons: $50/hr
Small group lessons: $35/hr